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Community groups try to slow down $5 billion Lincoln Yards development

Updated rendering of Lincoln Yards development

This updated rendering of Sterling Bay's Lincoln Yards development forgoes the soccer stadium and entertainment district for more park space. | Sterling Bay

A coalition of community leaders tried Monday to slow down the Lincoln Yards freight train before it leaves the station.

Friends of the Parks, Friends of the North Branch Park & Preserve, North Branch Works, the Bucktown Community Organization and the Chicago Independent Venues League joined forces in urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel and local Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) to call off a vote on the $5 billion development at Thursday’s meeting of the Chicago Plan Commission.

Hopkins set the stage for that vote by signing off on developer Sterling Bay’s latest iteration of the project minus the 20,000-seat soccer stadium and live entertainment district with large music venues controlled by LiveNation that Hopkins had already nixed.

“We, as Chicagoans, know that this is a city plagued with parking meter deals and red-light camera scandals. This is why this needs to be slowed down. There’s no such thing as a Daniel Burnham plan that gets pushed through in a few months,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director for Friends of the Parks.

Steve Jensen of the Bucktown Community Organization cited two reasons for throwing up a stop sign.

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One is Emanuel’s plan to create a new tax-increment-financing district, paving the way for a $900 million TIF subsidy to support infrastructure improvements needed to unlock the development potential of Lincoln Yards.

The other is the mayoral election, now just five weeks away.

“The TIF district being created will segregate tax funds away from the general fund of the city of Chicago, thereby increasing our property taxes and, possibly, pushing us out of our homes,” Jensen said.

“Second, the speed of this project being approved is troublesome. With a lame-duck mayor, a lame-duck City Council and [Plan] Commission. … The developer has stated it will take over 25 years to build this project out. We see no reason why they can’t wait another month.”

Robert Gomez, co-chair of the Chicago Independent Venues League, noted there is “not one word” in Sterling Bay’s revised, 58-page proposal about the number of live entertainment venues now that Hopkins has killed the part of the plan that included a live entertainment district, with large venues that would have been controlled by LiveNation.

The leaves the owners of small music venues fearful of being starved of talent and driven out of business with little more than Hopkins’ word that Lincoln Yards will include “a smattering of small venues.”

“How many is a smattering? … And how big will these venues be? That question remains unanswered,” Gomez said.

Gomez stressed that small music venues owners are “not anti-LiveNation,” but are concerned about “any mega-conglomerate having controlling interest in multiple venues of undisclosed sizes” in Chicago, he said.

“Putting five or six music venues in Lincoln Yards directly contradicts the cultural plan and the mayor’s vision for Uptown,” Gomez said, referring to the Uptown Music District anchored by a soon-to-be-renovated Uptown Theater.

“The mayor and Alderman Hopkins are rushing through a development that could have dire consequences — not just for independent venues like the Hideout, but for all Chicagoans for decades to come. Our message is still the same: Let’s slow this process down and delay the vote until an agreeable plan has been hashed out.”

Hopkins responded to the slow-down chorus by demanding that critics of the massive development along the Chicago River in Lincoln Park and Bucktown be specific about precisely what they want to change about a project that now includes 6,000 residential units and 15 million square feet of building space.

“That’s the relevant discussion we need to have now. Not the pace of the process. Not whether two or three large community hearings is the appropriate number. The time to argue about the process has passed. The time to comment on the very specific presentation of what Sterling bay would like to build is here,” the alderman said Monday.

Hopkins flatly denied the project is being rushed through the Plan Commission to lock in the massive TIF subsidy before Emanuel leaves office, among other reasons.

In fact, he argued there have been “adequate opportunities every step of the way” for community input and that feedback “has shaped this plan now before us.”

“This is an outstanding proposal to convert 50 acres of abandoned industrial land and build a new mixed-use development that will lead the way for the future of Chicago,” Hopkins said.

“When you’re doing something of this scope and magnitude, you’ll never get 100 percent agreement that it’s the right thing to do.”

The mayor’s office agreed there is “nothing rushed” about a project “three years in the making” that has been the subject of “more than 50” community meetings.

“The feedback was clear and Sterling Bay worked together with the Alderman and the City to bring forward a community-based plan that is fair [and] equitable for everyone. A plan that will finally take an area characterized by poor infrastructure, traffic congestion and a lack of public investment, and transform it into an economic engine for years to come,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.