We’re told the North Branch corridor is going to be The Next Big Thing in Chicago real estate. I have no doubt.

It will transform the land along the Chicago River’s north branch by extending downtown’s high-rise footprint to areas that until now have been reserved for industrial use.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) helped put in place some of those protections at a time when the city was more worried about downtown sprawl pushing out job-producing industrial companies.

Now that many of those companies have left for other reasons, the pressure has switched to opening the land for use by developers catering to the new tech economy and residences for the young people who work in it.

“It took me a while to be sold on it. I had to make sure my [remaining] businesses would be OK,” said Burnett, who has become one of the main advocates for the plan pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team.


Property owners who once begged to be included in Planned Manufacturing Districts, legal designations that effectively prohibited residential use, now demand to be freed of those constraints so they can sell, Burnett said.

It’s the part about the developers pushing for this that convinces me it is ripe to happen.

“This thing is really exciting,” Burnett told me. “I just don’t know if I’ll be around to see it completed.”

The 53 year-old Burnett, elected in 1995, isn’t planning to go away soon. He was referring to the 10 to 20 years it could take to complete work on the expected projects.

Burnett was gracious enough to take me for a tour of the portion of the North Branch corridor he represents. He has the largest piece of the affected area, which is bounded roughly by the river on the east and the Kennedy on the west, stretching from Kinzie north to Wrightwood.

The North Branch corridor of the Chicago River. Photo provided by City of Chicago

I wanted to see the area through his eyes. Few people know as much about a neighborhood as a veteran alderman.

Accordingly, he pointed out the hidden rail spur I would have missed that may become the city’s next big bike trail — and the Salvation Army properties he is determined to protect.

Burnett used to hang out in this area while growing up just to the east in the Cabrini Green row houses.

“We used to call this Ghost Town,” he said. “A lot of trains used to be over here. There used to be a lot of coyotes and rabbits and all that stuff. We used to come over here on our bikes and play and get dirty. And, you know, guys used to break into trains and get stuff.”

We enjoyed a good laugh over that. The alderman’s candor was a reminder of his well-documented misguided youth for which he has made amends many times over, even becoming the City Council’s most determined — if pragmatic — advocate for affordable housing.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) in 2015. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

Burnett was still a teenager when the Chicago Tribune opened its Freedom Center printing plant along the river in 1980.

Years later as an alderman, he helped arrange for the property to receive Planned Manufacturing District protections when residential development began to encroach along the other side of the river.

Now he’s expecting developers vying for the Tribune property to be among the first to take advantage of the city’s recently approved North Branch plan. The plan rezones much of the area to allow for mixed-use development while charging new fees for the privilege.

Burnett said the city is hoping to collect as much as $58 million in developer fees from the Tribune property alone, much of which would be redirected to other parts of the city.

Also in line for major redevelopments are the Greyhound bus maintenance facility just north of the Tribune site and the former Morton Salt factory on Elston, Burnett said.

The new plan still protects other heavy industrial businesses such as Bigane Paving and Prairie Material that need to remain close to downtown, he said.

The City on the Make remakes itself once again.