Developer sees One Central project as where Chicago goes to grow
Bob Dunn of Landmark Development said a new study bolsters his case for a state-backed transit hub at the site west of Soldier Field, but his vision involves risk.
As a developer, Bob Dunn is accustomed to obsessing over spreadsheets, diagrams and the need to raise money from other people. But developers can dream as well, and for his multibillion-dollar proposition here, Dunn would like others to dream with him.
Whether he — or we — can afford his expedition into the mists of future Chicago is to be decided.
The president of Landmark Development, Dunn wants all Chicago to embrace his One Central project, which foresees a new neighborhood of more than 9,000 homes mostly in high-rises west of Soldier Field, built on 31 acres and covering Metra tracks in a development pattern known well here. Above all, he needs backing from political leaders and the transit agencies. the latter of which is in process.
To that end, Dunn is releasing numbers from a transit study he commissioned that he says demonstrates the feasibility and sense of his proposal. “At its core, it’s a transit project,” Dunn said. He said beneficiaries include the museums, McCormick Place and the Bears or whoever else uses Soldier Field.
The development, he said, also would put Chicago at the forefront of trends. Chicago would get a transit center that unites four systems, potentially making it the envy of other cities. Only New York has that at its Grand Central Station, said Joe Willhite, Midwest district leader for engineering firm WSP, which is assisting on the project.
“Every time we peel away the layers on this project, we come to understand better how impactful it is,” Dunn said, insisting that better transit will help job prospects for South Siders by cutting commute times.
“You are able to build an international-caliber transit hub connecting all four systems that creates unprecedented growth in ridership, driven by private investment, in a location where you get tens of millions of people that intersect in the city day after day after day,” Dunn said.
The nub of this transit hub is a $3.8 billion package Dunn wants taxpayers to buy. By four systems, he means that it would serve Metra, the CTA, Amtrak and a tram-like circulator he calls the CHI-Line that would whisk people from McCormick Place to downtown and Navy Pier. It would use a busway now limited to conventioneers and VIPs. Dunn said his financial partners include the union-backed insurance firm Ullico; JLC Infrastructure, which is part of Loop Capital; and Johnson Controls. His high-rises might cost $20 billion, but estimates at this point are guesses.
The state would purchase the transit part by paying an estimated $6.5 billion to redeem bonds over 20 years. Dunn’s argument is that sales taxes from the restaurants, shops and what-not that go into this new gathering spot would pay off the bonds. The criticism is that if the high-rises don’t get built, the crowds don’t come and taxpayers get stuck with an infrastructure white elephant.
The transit study by WSP, Knight and TransSmart/EJM show that at full buildout in 2040, the One Central hub would account for nearly 100,000 daily boardings, about twice that of Union Station. The development could yield another 200,000 daily boardings at other downtown stations, the study said.
The 2040 timetable seems optimistic. We worry today about COVID-19, crime, high taxes and have a hard time conceiving of a city as an evolving organism. Can any long-range development survive obstacles now and in the future?
Dunn said One Central can’t be viewed in a three- to five-year time frame. “You look at a project like this as being transformative for the next generation,” he said. He juxtaposed overhead photos of Chicago in 1980 versus today. In the older photo, there’s the S-curve. There’s no Millennium Park. No Lakeshore East. Downtown looks relatively de-forested. The U.S. has had six recessions since 1980 and Chicago has prospered.
“It’s time for Chicago to recognize the opportunity that is on its doorstep,” Dunn said, meaning his property. “I can’t say it strongly enough: One Central needs to be thought of as a civic project before it’s thought of as a vertical real estate development.”
The Chicago Bears are dabbling with a move to Arlington Heights, possibly leaving a vacancy in Soldier Field. Dunn declined to comment on that, except to say the Bears are aware of his plans. He is one of the country’s leading experts on economic improvement around a football stadium having been involved in projects for the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, every Bears rival in the NFC North. He could leverage One Central into an assignment for Soldier Field improvements.
But his venture will take decades, well beyond most attention spans. Will he hand it off to someone else? “No, I will not be handing this off. I have made a major commitment to Chicago. My investors have made a major commitment to Chicago.”