A $350 million plan to transform Chicago’s premier development parcel — the shuttered Lincoln Park site of Children’s Memorial Hospital — sailed through a City Council committee Monday without a word of dissent.
“Six acres in the heart of Lincoln Park is pretty much unheard of,” said local Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), calling the project at Lincoln and Fullerton the “largest, most prominent and most complicated” her ward has faced in decades.
Developer Dan McCaffery added, “These things are never easy. In fact, one may say they’re darned difficult with a lot of push and pull. But I’m astounded by the support we’ve gotten from the community.”
The outcome was never in doubt for a project that includes a pair of 21-story, 270-unit residential towers, 60 condominiums, 156 assisted living units, a five-story health club and 100,000 square feet of retail space that will change the face of Lincoln Park.
The Zoning Committee routinely follows the longstanding City Council tradition of deferring to the wishes of the local alderman on zoning issues, and Smithstrongly supports the project. So does Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But Monday’s vote gave Smith one last chance to defend herself against roughly 450 historic district homeowners determined to shrink the massive project at a site that has stood vacant since the institution now known as Lurie Children’s Hospital made the move to a new medical complex in Streeterville in 2012.
Smith kicked off the one-sided debate by ticking off the “tremendous and positive changes” she forced the developer to make: two high-rises, instead of three; a host of traffic improvements and three public gardens that would add one acre of open space to a congested neighborhood that desperately needs it.
The alderman argued that Children’s Memorial was the “anchor of our community” and that “we needed a new one” to replace the “lost economic vitality.” The project is expected to create 2,500 construction jobs, 250 permanent positions and generate $122 million in new tax revenue.
“Because of our resolve, the developer was forced to renegotiate its arrangements with a large, respected institution, resulting in the new and substantially reduced plan that you see today,” the alderman said.
Well aware that her endorsement could become an issue in next year’s aldermanic election, Smith argued that Lincoln Park stands at a crossroads.
“Everyone has compromised to get this done and everyone has participated over two years. It is time to move forward. Our local businesses are struggling to hang on as the huge complex sits empty. The structure itself is starting to show neglect. The majority of the ward wants to accept this plan,” she said.
Josh Glazier, president of the Mid-North Association, said the association’s decision to take a pass at testifying at Monday’s Zoning Committee meeting should not be misconstrued as throwing in the towel.
“People learned their lesson from the Plan Commission. They made very good arguments about why there should be a better process, better result and they were completely ignored. Why should they make time from their work days or taking care of their children to go talk about something when nobody is listening?” he said.
Glazier pointedly refused to comment on what he called “pending or planned litigation” that could indefinitely delay McCaffery’s plan to begin three-to-seven months of demolition this fall, followed by three years of construction.
“This project would be great in River North or Streeterville, where you have density like this. But it’s out of place in Lincoln Park and would set a horrible precedent for future development,” Glazier said.
In 2011, Smith narrowly defeated opponent Tim Egan with support from Mid-North homeowners after campaigning on her opposition to the redevelopment of the old Grant Hospital site.
During Plan Commission debate, one critic went so far as to call Smith “our wonderful alderman who has betrayed us” and predict that Smith would be defeated in 2015.
On Monday, Smith refused to discuss the upcoming aldermanic election — nor would she confirm plans to seek re-election.
She would say only, “I’ve lived up to every pledge that I’ve made as alderman. And I’m very comfortable that we fought very hard for the community to reach a development that’s supported by the vast majority of the community.”
As for those who claim the massive project is simply too much for the congested neighborhood to swallow, Smith argued that, even with all of the new retail, the development would attract just 25 percent of the traffic Children’s Memorial did when it “operated as a 24-hour, three-shifts-a-day, 365-day-a-year hospital facility.”