Taxpayers can’t afford to have casino open the door to costly One Central mega-development

So messy is the scenario that Hard Rock and Landmark officials at their town hall turned into pretzels trying to convince people their casino proposal is not tied to the fate of One Central.

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Artist’s rendering of the proposed Hard Rock Chicago casino.

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Hard Rock Chicago casino, which would be built on a huge platform constructed over Metra tracks near Soldier Field.

Provided

Here’s the little quiz I’ve been playing with friends and colleagues from all over the city.

First question: Do you know what One Central is? Most common answer: “I’ve heard of it, not really sure what/where it is.”

Second question: Do you know the state has approved a $6.5 billion taxpayer subsidy for this project, which promises to extend the downtown skyline with nine skyscrapers of unspecified height and now is a top contender for the city’s new casino?

Most common answer: “No! When did that happen?” Or even, “Billion, with a ‘B’?!” Yep, that’s right.

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These are the responses I continue to get, even after One Central’s partnership with Hard Rock landed on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s list of top three casino sites. Rumor has it, One Central is No. 1 on that list, and so could end up with both the massive taxpayer subsidy and the golden goose of a casino.

Here are the facts. One Central is a 34-acre mega-development currently pegged at $20 billion (more than three times the cost of Lincoln Yards). It’s to be built on a 7-story, 10-block-long wall that developer Bob Dunn likes to call a “podium” over the Metra tracks running along DuSable Lake Shore Drive from Soldier Field to McCormick Place.

Dunn alternately brags this will extend the downtown skyline and serve as a gateway to downtown jobs for South Side residents. The former claim is true, although there is no clamor for more downtown skyline; the latter claim, dubious.

As for what will fill those nine skyscrapers, Dunn has suggested an anchor firm or accounting firm without giving any details. Is he bringing in a new one? Or stealing from the Loop, where office vacancies are now at record highs?

One Central was a loony idea when first proposed. Now, after the devastating impact of COVID-19, it’s downright destructive.

But wait, there’s that $6.5 billion state subsidy, approved by the legislature in the final hours of the 2019 session and signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker — although he repeatedly has expressed a reluctance to write the check, his spokesperson recently saying, “With the pandemic’s economic turmoil upending state budgets around the country, it would be a challenge for any state to provide the significant amount this developer is seeking.”

This taxpayer subsidy would fund a transit hub Dunn likes to call the “public build,” although “public bilk” would seem more accurate. It would link the Metra Electric line, the South Shore Line, Amtrak, a new branch of the ‘L’ and a proposed autonomous vehicle network called the “CHI-Line” into a single hub.

None of the transit agencies had this hub in their long-range plans, and only Metra has shown any interest. Even Lightfoot has said, “I’m not sure that having a transportation hub in that area is a priority.”

With payments set to start in July 2023 and continue for 20 years, our tax dollars will actually buy this transit hub: We will pay a 70% markup over Dunn’s development cost, which the subsidy law caps at $3.8 billion. There is no provision for how much, or how, the state will pay for ongoing management and maintenance of the hub.

So messy is this scenario that Hard Rock and Landmark officials at their town hall this week turned into pretzels trying to convince the community their casino proposal is not tied to the fate of One Central. But they couldn’t explain what that means.

We all understand that One Central is a developer’s pipe dream, the type of massive over-reach popular decades ago — along with the state subsidies that made anything possible as long as developers promised X-number of new jobs.

Illinois needs new jobs. But if we want to use tax dollars to help communities, why do we need Landmark as a middleman? Last October, the Chicago Sun-Times asked the critical question: “Does Chicago need another multi-acre, multi-billion-dollar, developer-driven, mixed-use project built on the margins of downtown — and with a public subsidy, no less?”

With or without a casino, Landmark owns the air rights on this property and is free to build whatever it can get through state and city approval processes. (As of this writing, they have yet to respond to pages of questions from the city’s Department of Planning.)

That process must include viable public input. But nothing Landmark builds should include public dollars. Springfield: Pull the plug on that $6.5 billion before this session ends.

Marj Halperin is a communications consultant to nonprofits and government agencies. Her political commentary has been featured on WGN TV, CTV Canada and WCPT radio. She and other South Loop residents organize at www.OneCommunitySL.com.

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