Chicago Plan Commission endorses Bally’s casino plan
The action sends the zoning proposal to the City Council, but 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett Jr.’s objection could delay its consideration.
The city’s planning agency Monday approved zoning for the proposed Bally’s casino at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street, a step in the $1.7 billion project’s journey through government approvals. The approval came despite a last-minute objection from a key alderperson.
The Chicago Plan Commission endorsed the Bally’s proposal embraced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, which includes a 500-room hotel, a 3,000-seat theater and event center and a riverwalk. The casino would get 4,000 gaming positions.
The commission advises the City Council on big developments. Members include mayoral appointees, alderpersons and department heads.
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., whose 27th Ward includes the project, assailed Bally’s for not disclosing its workforce development plan reached with Chicago labor unions. Burnett said he is worried that union labor may not provide enough jobs for Black residents. A Bally’s executive promised to provide the workforce development plan by Tuesday when the project goes before the Council’s Zoning Committee.
Until he sees the plan, Burnett said he cannot support the zoning. He has backed the casino.
“I want to see that by tomorrow, or I’ll just raise a lot of hell at the zoning meeting,” said Burnett, who has supported the casino, taking what he said were political risks in the process. “I need to make sure that people from my community can get a job,” he said.
Burnett said the trade unions traditionally have shut out minority workers, so he wants to see a written commitment.
“You guys need to talk to me, man, if you want my support,” he told Christopher Jewett, vice president of corporate development at Bally’s.
“We promised you this, and we will come through,” Jewett said.
He said Bally’s will fulfill all pledges for minority hiring and contracting. Jewett said he needs consent from trade unions and the Chicago Federation of Labor before he can share agreements.
The company told the plan commission that 46% of all contracts will go to minority- or women-owned firms and that 60% of hiring will go to minorities. When asked for a comment, CFL President Robert Reiter Jr. said he was looking into the situation. He emphasized that Burnett “has long supported labor and continues to be one of our strongest advocates.”
The panel’s recommendation, approved on a 12-1 vote, goes to the Council for final review, which could come Wednesday. Burnett, a member of the commission, recused himself from the vote. The only opposing vote came from architect Laura Flores, the commission’s chairperson. She did not explain her vote.
As the commission is stacked with mayoral allies, no member ventured a criticism of the project. Some spoke in its favor, praising Bally’s for revising it in response to community complaints. Many nearby residents in River North continue to oppose the project for reasons that include density, congestion and potential crime.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) told the commission that Bally’s ongoing changes to its plan show it was poorly conceived from the start.
“It seems as though this airplane is being built as it’s flying,” Reilly said. “And typical process requirements, like a completely vetted traffic study, public safety plan and parking accommodations, would have been prepared well in advance of the City Council issuing any approvals for a project like this.”
Reilly said the zoning review should have come earlier in the city’s casino deliberation.
Approval from alderpersons would give Bally’s the zoning authority to start construction, but the company still needs certification from the Illinois Gaming Board to operate in Chicago. If that OK comes, Bally’s hopes to open a temporary casino at Medinah Temple, 600 N. Wabash Ave., next year and to have the permanent location finished in 2026.
The permanent site, now a Chicago Tribune printing plant, runs along the west side of the Chicago River between Grand and Chicago avenues. Bally’s has suggested the plant might temporarily continue on a corner of the property, but the Tribune has not disclosed any relocation plans. The plant prints the Tribune, Sun-Times, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Bally’s is acquiring the roughly 30-acre site but is in turn selling it to Chicago-based Oak Street Real Estate Capital and leasing the property. The 99-year leaseback allows Bally’s to raise up to $500 million it can apply to development costs. Critics have said the Illinois Gaming Board should closely examine the arrangement because it increases the project’s fiscal complexity.
Bally’s has said the deal does the opposite.
“With this new real estate partnership, Bally’s has ample liquidity on hand to fund Bally’s Chicago without needing to access the capital markets,” the company’s chief financial officer, Bobby Lavan, has said.
Its plan allows for 2,500 underground parking spaces on three levels beneath the casino, said Chris Pemberton, president at the architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz, which Bally’s has hired. There also would be another 700 parking spaces for employees on a temporary surface lot.
The casino and its related hotel and entertainment space would be the first phase of development planned on the site. Later phases could include a hotel and up to 4,799 residences, the plan commission was told. Twenty percent of the residences would be rated affordable under city ordinance.
The Riverwalk and generous landscaping will make the property attractive for users, said Bradley McCauley, managing principal at Site Design Group, another firm involved in the project. “We want to make sure this is a space that people want to come to and that they want to stay at,” he said.