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Esports arena scheduled for city agency’s review

The $30 million project on the Near South Side would include programs to help students learn the technology behind virtual reality.

A rendering of the planned esports arena a developer wants to build in the 2500 block of South Wabash Avenue.
A rendering of the planned esports arena a developer wants to build in the 2500 block of South Wabash Avenue.
Provided

City planners are advancing a proposed $30 million arena devoted to esports and virtual reality on the Near South Side.

The zoning proposal from a Lincolnshire-based developer promises an immersive experience for up to 1,040 people, including game participants and spectators. Called Surge, it would be built at 2500-2548 S. Wabash Ave., just across I-55 from McCormick Place.

Such a crowd generator would need an improvement in the pandemic before it can operate. But city approval of the zoning would allow the developer, Scott Greenberg, president of ECD, to start construction.

“At this time when we need to return to some type of normalcy, this is an exciting project and something to look forward to,” said Bonnie Sanchez-Carlson, president of the Near South Planning Board.

A view Tuesday of a building that would be adapted for a $30 million e-sports arena in the 2500 block of South Wabash Avenue.
This building in the 2500 block of South Wabash Avenue would be incorporated into a $30 million esports arena on the Near South Side. It would be combined with a new structure built on the now-vacant land to the south.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The facility would cover more than 108,000 square feet and would include restaurant and bar service, free-roaming space for virtual reality gamers and the ability to broadcast events. Greenberg has told community groups he can build it without city subsidies.

He also has promised partnerships with local schools and universities to help them educate students in esports technology and design.

The project has been placed on the agenda of Thursday’s Chicago Plan Commission meeting, indicating the city’s planning department recommends it. Approval by the commission, which reviews larger zoning proposals, would send the matter to the City Council.

Greenberg could not be reached for comment. He has produced several commercial and residential projects around town, but is perhaps best known for building the Wit Hotel at 201 N. State St., with the angled lights on its front façade that suggest a lightning bolt. The hotel was the work of Chicago architect Jackie Koo, whose firm is listed as designer of the esports arena.

City planning documents indicate some flashier elements of the esports building, such as signs, have been toned down after meetings with community groups. The project would reuse an existing two-story building, formerly Kozy’s Cyclery, while constructing space next door on property that had been used to store semi-trailers. The developer also plans parking for 90 cars and retail space down the block, at 2601 S. Wabash Ave.

Sanchez-Carlson, whose community group backs the proposal, said Greenberg’s term has worked hard on traffic and parking. She hopes the attention will encourage other development and help the nearby Motor Row historic district. “Right now, it’s just very quiet over there. That area needs a jump start,” she said.

Ald. Pat Dowell, whose 3rd Ward includes the project, said the arena appears financially viable and will involve minority-owned contractors and funding sources. She said the developer has pledged to offer programs that benefit Drake Elementary School, Phillips Academy High School and the National Teachers Academy, all nearby.

Greenberg has formed a company, Smash Interactive, to handle the venture. He has asserted that esports are becoming mainstream, with an audience soon to exceed that of most athletic events, except the National Football League.

The plan commission also is scheduled to review three other proposals Thursday:

• A 27-story residential building containing 375 units, from developer Michael Moceri and architect Thomas Roszak.

• A 12-story, 96-unit building for affordable housing at 1939 W. Lake St., by affiliates of Northbrook-based Brinshore Development. It’s part of Westhaven Park on the site of the old Henry Horner Homes.

• A nine-story office and retail building at 1229 W. Randolph St., by New York-based Thor Equities.