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Rahm Emanuel gung-ho about U.S. Steel project, alderman says

Aerial view of the former U.S. Steel South Works

A joint venture plans to put up 12,000 modular homes and a plant to make the components on the former South Works site. | Photo courtesy of Lakeside Development

Top mayoral aides met this week with developers planning to build 12,000 modular homes, along with a factory to manufacture them, on the 430-acre site of the old U.S. Steel South Works plant amid word that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is gung-ho about the project.

“The mayor told me personally that he is committed to helping this project get off the ground,” said Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), whose ward includes the site.

“The development of 430 acres in his city and the jobs that come with it. Bright and shiny new buildings and new technology. They’re looking at us to be the prototype so people can see this project and . . . [they can] bring this development to other Midwestern cities. The mayor always talks about giving back to the neighborhoods. This is huge. It’s bigger than downtown. . . . We might need another mayor.”

Two months ago, a joint-venture between Barcelona Housing Systems and WELink emerged as the winning bidder for the massive U.S. Steel site, with plans to build as many as 12,000 modular homes along with an on-site plant that produces the modular materials.

On Wednesday, principals from the two firms outlined their ambitious plan for Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman and Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland.

According to Garza, the developers talked about being “six weeks away from signing a contract” with U.S. Steel and about awaiting results of an environmental study of the 430-acre site.

They assured top mayoral aides they have the financing and the expertise to pull off the massive development on a site that has sat stubbornly vacant for far too long.

“They have the financing. . . . They wouldn’t have gotten to this point if they didn’t,” Garza said Thursday.

Reifman and Koch could not be reached and the mayor’s office had no immediate comment.

But, a top mayoral aide who asked to remain anonymous acknowledged Emanuel’s enthusiasm for the project. “We’re all very excited about it. It seems like a very strong proposal. We are encouraged and supportive of what’s happening,” the aide said.

Barcelona Housing Systems and WELink could not be reached for comment. It was not known what, if any, public subsidy they would seek from the city.

Last year, a split between the steel giant and prominent Chicago developer Dan McCaffery killed a similarly ambitious plan to build a “new city” on the long-vacant lakefront site. McCaffery’s plan called for building as many as 13,000 homes, 17.5 million square feet of commercial space and a marina with space for 1,500 boats.

The new plan includes 1,000 fewer homes. But, Garza said she is confident that Barcelona Housing can succeed where McCaffery failed. She noted that the company took its time to learn about the neighborhood and find out what local residents want.

In addition to building the plant that produces modular materials and modular homes in four phases of 3,000 homes each, the new plan calls for retail and recreational space, she said.

“When the mills left, so did the jobs and the restaurants. We were kind of left with a shell of a community,” Garza said. “We had nine steel mills. At the peak, District 31 had 134,000 steelworkers. Now, if we have 100, I’m being generous. This is very exciting for us. The 10th Ward is on the upswing.”