River North group wants better infrastructure around proposed casino, but who pays?

The organization’s request possibly hints at a broader issue: That the casino site could prove to be a potential time bomb of hidden public infrastructure costs.

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Bally’s plan for its River West casino includes grassy plaza.

A view of Bally’s River West casino, planned for a riverside site at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street.

Provided

For watchers of the planned Chicago casino, a list of demands this week by the River North Residents Association is worth keeping an eye on.

According to Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman and Mitchell Armentrout, the group hit the city — and casino operator Bally’s — with a series of proposed changes aimed at making the gaming center planned for the already traffic-congested intersection of Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street a better fit for their neighborhood.

Among the biggest suggested items: The group wants an eastbound exit ramp and westbound entrance ramp built, connecting Bally’s River West casino directly to the Kennedy Expressway’s Ohio-Ontario feeder.

In theory, the new ramp would keep casino traffic off surface streets.

Editorials bug

Editorials

Neither the mayor’s office nor Bally’s would comment on these requests, and this editorial board is not yet taking a stand for or against the group’s wish list — although we are frowning at the residents’ association’s idea for new ramps.

But we think the list possibly hints at a broader issue: That the casino site could prove to be a potential time bomb of hidden public infrastructure costs.

And that could mean millions of dollars spent to fix the physical deficiencies of a site that we’ve said was too hastily picked and rushed to approval.

Making the casino ‘as good as it possibly can be’

To its credit, Bally’s has agreed to spend $74 million on infrastructure to improve traffic and access in and around the Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street intersection as part of the $1.7 billion project.

But the River North Residents Association’s ramp proposal isn’t included in this amount, and neither is the group’s more reasonable request to extend North Jefferson Street to Grand Avenue in order to relieve Halsted Street congestion near the casino.

“We’re hoping for pretty broad support for these recommendations — at least, most of ’em — even among people who supported the casino,” association president Brian Israel told the Sun-Times.

Israel said he is “certainly behind making this [casino] as good as it possibly can be and working to reduce negative impacts on the community.”

Beware of price-creep

There is frequently price-creep when it comes to major public projects in this city, and this is our concern here.

For instance, Millennium Park’s proposed cost was $150 million. But changes in the original plan caused construction delays and ballooned the price to at least $475 million.

Politically, the Daley administration had to get the job done — you can imagine the embarrassment had the project gone unfinished — so taxpayers kicked in $270 million and donors ponied up the rest.

For all that money, though, the result is a famed public park that also helped spark nearly two decades of redevelopment along Michigan Avenue south of the Chicago River.

The casino is a different animal, however.

Frankly, the city ought to have picked a better site for the casino complex, one that could be as transformative for — and wanted by — its neighborhood as Millennium Park has been for the eastern edge of downtown.

And the casino should have been planned for a location that required a lot less MacGyvering of the site to possibly mitigate the concerns of nearby residents — many of whom didn’t want the casino near them anyway.

Yet here we are. And given this casino is supposed to make money for Chicago’s police and fire pensions — and only 9% of that cost, as it turns out — the city and the state must resist whatever urge they may have down the road to dip into the public till to help finance the public improvements needed to get the project finished.

That would be a losing bet for sure.

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