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Wisconsin developer proposes decking over rail yards west of Soldier Field

aerial view of Soldier Field and surrounding area

A developer is proposing to build above the railroad tracks just west of Lake Shore Drive and Soldier Field. | Lee Hogan/For Sun-Times Media

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is racing to secure nearly $2 billion in tax-increment-financing subsidies to unlock the development potential of four massive projects in and around downtown Chicago.

Now, there’s another mega-project on the horizon that would not require a TIF subsidy, but has every bit as much potential to re-shape the Central Area.

A team that includes a Wisconsin developer better known for his stadium projects — including Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Ford Field in Detroit — has briefed city officials on an ambitious plan to deck over railroad tracks west of Soldier Field for a project that could include residential, office, retail and possibly hotel components.

That’s the same 34-acre area west of Lake Shore Drive, between McFetridge Drive and 20th Street that Friends of the Parks once suggested as an alternative site for the Lucas Museum before the movie mogul pulled up stakes and took his $400 million project to Los Angeles.

Developer Bob Dunn of Wisconsin-based Hammes Sports Co. could not be reached for comment about the project, first disclosed by Crain’s Chicago Business.

A spokesman for Landmark Development, Dunn’s partnership with Central Station developer Gerald Fogelson, refused to comment on the project, saying a formal unveiling is planned for mid-March.

Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said Thursday he’s reserving judgment.

“I’ve seen a preliminary presentation and I have no opinions about it yet. It’s too early in the process,” Reifman told the Sun-Times Thursday. That was not long after the Chicago Plan Commission approved new TIFs expected to generate $1.6 billion to bankroll infrastructure projects tied to Lincoln Yards and the South Loop development known as “the 78.”

“We’re always open to reviewing ideas that further the growth of the city. But, I don’t have enough detail to understand the impacts on development, on traffic. I haven’t reviewed it to the point where I’m in a position to give an opinion.”

Decking over rail yards to make way for such a massive project would be expensive and tricky, just as it was when Millennium Park was built.

But Reifman said: “All large projects are complex. We take each one’s complexity in stride.”

Metra officials would only say that the commuter rail agency has been briefed on the project.

The proposed project would be built above an 18th Street station that gets little use, except on game days at Soldier Field, along with a railyard used to service Metra Electric trains.

But, sources said Landmark wants to “greatly enhance” that station beneath its massive development to serve an influx of residents and businesses above.

“We’re telling all of these people who have ideas the same thing: ‘You’re gonna have to fund it.’ We don’t have the money,” said a Metra official, who asked to remain anonymous.

“If you’re expecting us to provide more service, you’ll have to cover our operating costs, too.”

McCormick Place CEO Lori Healey and local Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) did not return repeated phone calls. Both have been briefed on the plan, sources said.

Crain’s quoted Dowell as saying that, unlike the 78, Lincoln Yards and the old Michael Reese Hospital site, Landmark Development is not seeking a TIF subsidy.

Dowell also called Dunn “among the best developers I’ve worked with” and said his plan is “very impressive.” She told Crain’s she plans to present the long-term plan to her constituents at a public meeting on March 13.