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City says booming Fulton Market district needs a checkup

A consultant has been hired to conduct a six-month study of neighborhood infrastructure.

Aerial view of the an area just west of downtown Chicago.
The city’s Department of Planning and Development has hired a consulting firm to conduct a six-month review of infrastructure in the area between Randolph and Hubbard streets, from Halsted Street west to Ogden Avenue.
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In the last few years, the old Fulton Market meat and produce district has been transformed into an extension of downtown, with corporate offices and hotels joining a tide of new multi-family mid-rises throughout the Near West Side.

But is it getting to be too much for what those new developments must rely on — streets, sewers, water mains and utility lines that were designed for another era? City Hall has funded a study that aims to find out.

In an unusual move, city planners have hired a consultant to examine the Fulton Market area’s infrastructure and recommend what needs to be replaced or upgraded.

The Department of Planning and Development will pay AECOM, an infrastructure consulting firm, about $150,000 for what’s expected to be a six-month review. It will cover a region bounded by Hubbard and Randolph streets, Halsted Street to Ogden Avenue.

Eleanor Gorski, acting planning commissioner, said city agencies typically check infrastructure piecemeal, for each development needing zoning approval; it may be checked on a larger scale when neighborhood plans are drawn up or updated.

She said the Fulton Market study was prompted by pressure for continued development that seems unlikely to let up. “We knew this needed to be done in order to have a thorough planning process,” Gorski said. “It’s become a more pressing issue” as development has persisted, she said.

Gorski said Fulton Market also needed special attention because its property has a long list of different owners, so land deals happen on a smaller scale in contrast to a mega-development such as Lincoln Yards on the North Side or the 78 just south of the Loop, where the city can negotiate with a single developer about necessary public works.

AECOM’s study will include Metra crossings, sidewalk designs and other neighborhood features, officials said. The firm will use subcontractors and will exceed city guidelines for hiring minority-owned firms and meet the standards for women-owned firms, said Coordinating Planner Erika Sellke.

Damone Richardson, head of the development committee for the West Loop Community Organization, said he welcomes the study. “One of the things we have argued for is development that’s sustainable and good for the residents,” he said.

Under city rules, the group is empowered to review proposed developments and make its recommendations to the relevant alderman who, pending possible reforms under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, still has the final say over a ward’s zoning changes.

Acting planning commissioner Eleanor Gorski (left) and Damone Richardson of the West Loop Community Organization
Acting planning commissioner Eleanor Gorski (left) and Damone Richardson of the West Loop Community Organization.

Richardson said with each development coming before his group, residents have voiced concern about density and the impact on streets and public services. “We like to get involved as early as possible in the process so developers can heed the feedback and make adjustments,” he said.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., whose 27th Ward covers much of the Near West Side, also said he supports the study. “When these developments cause problems with traffic and parking, people look to me for answers,” he said.

Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city gave a major boost to development in Fulton Market in 2017 when it extended downtown zoning rules into that neighborhood, allowing housing developers to build taller and bigger in exchange for paying into a fund supporting affordable housing.

Wednesday night, Burnett attended a residents’ meeting for a large-scale project on the western edge of the Fulton Market corridor. Developer Marquette Cos., using the extra density allowed under the affordable housing program, wants to build nearly 500 new residences in two buildings at 1400 and 1440 W. Randolph. Attendees criticized the scale of the project and its perceived shortage of parking, and Marquette was asked to come back with a redesign.

“We need a more measured approach to development in the community,” said Near West Side resident Bene Dituri, who called the developer’s use of zoning rules a “travesty.”

Not far away, at 1375 W. Fulton Market, the firm Trammell Crow is building a 14-story office building that will become the Chicago base of the job placement site Glassdoor.

Both projects occupy a sweet spot for development: They are right on the edge of more permissive downtown zoning area and just outside a manufacturing district west of Ogden Avenue that the city intends to preserve.