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On eve of vote, developer agrees to reduce height and density of Lincoln Yards

Artist's rendering of the Lincoln Yards development. | Provided by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)

Artist's rendering of the Lincoln Yards development. | Provided by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)

Developer Sterling Bay agreed Wednesday to reduce the height and density of its $6 billion Lincoln Yards project to appease residents concerned about aesthetics and congestion.

Under the original plan, the massive mixed-use project was to have a total of 15 million square feet, including an 800-foot tower and five more buildings in the 600-to-700-foot range.

Instead, no building will exceed 600 feet, and the total size will be capped at 14.5 million square feet.

The latest in a series of developer concessions was brokered by local Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) with a nudge from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has pressured the City Council to sign-off on the massive project before he leaves office.

That sets the stage for the City Council’s Zoning Committee to approve the project Thursday over the strenuous objections of both mayoral candidates.

“The community’s concern was about the excessive height. People just felt 800-foot towers were too tall,” Hopkins said Wednesday.

“The number of residential units isn’t changing. It’s remaining at 6,000. But, we believe that the infrastructure we’re going to build can more than accommodate the growth that will be experienced by the development. Three new bridges over the river, new roads and reconfiguration of the Armitage-Ashland intersection.”

Earlier this week, Sterling Bay agreed to double the number of affordable units on the 55-acre site along the Chicago River in Lincoln Park and Bucktown.

Instead of building 300 affordable units on site, five percent of the overall total, Sterling Bay will build 600 on-site units — a 10 percent share.

For the second straight day, Zoning Committee Chairman James Cappleman could not be reached for comment on whether that affordable housing compromise would be enough to satisfy his demands.

On Jan. 30, Cappleman demanded that Sterling Bay dramatically increase the number of affordable units on site and urged Sterling Bay to work with the Chicago Housing Authority to “provide more affordable housing for people who earn less than 30 percent of the area median income. That’s where there’s a true crisis of affordable housing.”

“This is going to happen because I’m going to work to make it happen,” Cappleman said then, noting that the 2nd Ward is “among the wards with the least amount of affordable housing” in Chicago.

Mayoral runoff opponents Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle are united in demanding that the City Council postpone a final vote on  Lincoln Yards until a new mayor takes office.

Both have questioned the $900 million tax-increment-financing subsidy to reimburse Sterling Bay for infrastructure costs at a time when the city faces a $1 billion spike in pension payments and other pressing concerns.

Hopkins argued Wednesday that delaying the vote could jeopardize a project that will change the face of Chicago’s North Side.

“There’s no reason to take that chance if we have support now. We have a mayor who supports this project and we have majority vote in the Council right now to do it. Why would I wait?” Hopkins said.

“Bringing 23,000 new jobs to Chicago is in the interest of the greater good. Finding a way to do that while still accommodating the quality of life concerns of my neighbors is the balance that we’re trying to strike.”

Without mentioning either mayoral candidate by name, Hopkins argued that neither one has been “fully briefed on the details” of Lincoln Yards. They’re simply playing to the crowd.

“You can fly by the seat of your pants as a candidate. You can’t do that as a mayor,” he said.

“You can’t make decisions without being fully briefed on every detail and all of the ramifications of something as consequential as a $6 billion development,” Hopkins said. “To make a decision based on a campaign sound bite is bad for the city. And it’s not the way to govern.”

Hopkins noted that the height and density reductions and the increase in the number of affordable housing units on site are in addition to a host of other changes.

A proposed soccer stadium was scrapped. So was the proposed entertainment district. The square footage of a proposed park was doubled. And instead of building two bridges over the Chicago River, Sterling Bay has agreed to build three.