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Morton Salt project heads toward zoning approval

The proposal for the old industrial site calls for space for live music, entertainment and offices while preserving the iconic sign.

A rendering of the planned office and entertainment complex at the former Morton Salt property, 1357 N. Elston Ave.
A rendering of the planned office and entertainment complex at the former Morton Salt property, 1357 N. Elston Ave.
Lamar Johnson Collaborative

A West Town project designed for post-coronavirus normalcy, when people again gather in restaurants and to hear live music, is poised for approval by a city planning agency.

The proposed $30 million renovation of the old Morton Salt building at 1357 N. Elston Ave. is scheduled for a hearing Thursday by the Chicago Plan Commission. The developers, who include the owners of the Thalia Hall music venue in Pilsen, plan to preserve the site’s well-known “umbrella girl” sign for Morton Salt visible to Kennedy Expressway commuters. The sign includes the Chicago-based company’s slogan, “When it rains, it pours.”

Plans call for the roughly four-acre property between Elston and the North Branch of the Chicago River to include a music venue incorporating the old shed that is the site’s most dominant feature. The balance of the property would get restaurants, entertainment uses and some office space under the zoning proposal the plan commission will review.

“It’s a very interesting adaptive reuse” of a site no longer attractive to manufacturers, said Jonathan Snyder, executive director of North Branch Works, an industrial retention group. He said the project should complement continued improvement in the Goose Island manufacturing district immediately east of the property.

Morton Salt used the property for storage and packing from 1930 to 2015, according to records submitted to the city. The company, part of the German chemical firm K+S, said in 2018 that it would maintain a connection to the property by leasing 20,000 square feet for offices once the development is finished. Morton Salt said it would relocate a research center from Elgin.

The zoning proposal has been pending before the city since October 2019. The developers, Blue Star Properties and R2, did not respond to messages Tuesday. Morton Salt also did not answer a message.

Blue Star owns Thalia Hall, the Pilsen music venue that, like all such auditoriums here, has been shuttered because of the pandemic.

The developers hired the architectural firm Lamar Johnson Collaborative for the design, which also calls for repurposing two other buildings.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., whose 27th Ward includes the site, said he supports the project, praising its proposed riverwalk and open space. He said the plans were tweaked to address concerns about traffic. The site would get only 17 off-street parking spaces.

“They’ll have to deal with other property owners for parking,” Burnett said.

Snyder said the developers are convinced patrons will arrive at the site mostly on public transit or via ride-hailing services.

Adam Flickinger, planning director for Friends of the Chicago River, said the group met with the developers Tuesday and favors the project but wants more detail about the landscape design.

An endorsement from the plan commission would send the project to the City Council for final review.

The Morton Salt sign ultimately could get city landmark designation. The property is just south of the planned Lincoln Yards megadevelopment of an old industrial corridor.

“I like industrial jobs and would like to see more of them. Manufacturing creates tremendous wealth in the community,” Snyder said. “I still believe there’s a place for those jobs on the North Side.”