Friends of the Parks puts chips on the table in Chicago casino sweepstakes

In a letter to supporters and contributors, Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry made a point-by-point argument for why the plan by casino magnate Neil Bluhm was the best of five competing proposals.

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A rendering of how McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center might look as a casino.

A rendering of how McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center might look as a casino.

Rivers Chicago at McCormick LLC

Friends of the Parks on Tuesday put its chips on the table in the Chicago casino sweepstakes, favoring the proposed rebirth of Lakeside Center, the oldest and least-used building at McCormick Place.

In a letter to supporters and contributors, Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry argued point-by-point why the plan casino magnate Neil Bluhm calls “Rivers Chicago McCormick” was the best of five competing proposals, in terms of reclaiming park space and improving public access.

Rivers Chicago McCormick “has reached out to” Friends of the Parks, Irizarry said, and was “the only team to do so.”

The outreach wasn’t just flattering. It was substantive. Bluhm and his partners are “listening to our concerns” and paying close attention to “ways people and animals benefit from the lakefront,” Irizarry said.

“As we’ve consistently advocated for, the current proposal imagines greening in the parking area that returns more than five acres of asphalt parking lots to public parkland,” Irizarry wrote.

“We’re still pushing for more in the name of the vision for surface parking reduction that was articulated back in 1993 ... as part of the deal that facilitated the Museum Campus and the McCormick Place expansion.”

The civic group’s support of the Bluhm plan comes as city officials weigh which proposal to support and present to the Illinois Gaming Board. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has said it wants to decide in a few weeks.

Irizarry noted Rivers Chicago McCormick Place calls for installing a green roof atop Lakeside Center, enhancing the McCormick Bird Sanctuary and creating nearly five more acres of public plaza surrounding the building “without expanding” the existing footprint.

“Such access is the idea that we envisioned back in the early ’90’s when we advocated for a new public entrance that makes it possible to enter the building from the lakefront path,” Irizarry wrote.

“This access for visitors, including those who are not using the casino, would activate this space that has blocked east-west access to the lakefront for decades, instead inviting all Chicagoans to enjoy the glory of Lake Michigan from a perch above the parkland.”

The plan for a public plaza “has the potential to address demand for restaurants and other amenities in the area,” she said.

The proposed rebirth of Lakeside Center could be the quickest casino to market — an estimated 12 months. But it removes space McCormick Place officials contend is needed for conventions and trade shows.

“We’re gratified that Friends of the Parks – along with Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and other stakeholders — recognize the public benefits of our proposal,” said developer Scott Goodman, part of the Rivers Chicago McCormick bid team.

“Along with the $1.5 billion in additional financial benefit for the taxpayers, the Rivers Chicago McCormick plan would create new public space, activate the lakefront, and adaptively reuse an iconic public asset.”

An aerial view of the Lakeside Center at McCormick Place. The convention hall, right on the water, opened in 1970, is the oldest section of the facility.

An aerial view of the Lakeside Center at McCormick Place. The convention hall, right on the water, opened in 1970, is the oldest section of the facility. It was built to replace the original McCormick Place, which was destroyed by fire in 1967.

Sun-Times file

The estimated cost of 2,600 gaming positions at Lakeside Center is $1.3 billion — $700 million less than the most expensive proposal. It calls for an updated Arie Crown Theater and would provide direct access to the existing, more modern and better-utilized McCormick Place convention halls.

But some in the convention business don’t want a casino so close to the existing complex, fearing it would lure conventioneers off the exhibition floor.

Rivers touts its proposal as bankrolling “much-needed restoration and deferred maintenance” of Lakeside Center.

Developers further claim there is “ample parking” and that the 2,900 existing hotels rooms are already connected by a covered walkway.

McCormick Place officials had no immediate comment on the Friends of the Parks letter. But last month, McCormick Place CEO Larita Clark raised potential roadblocks to casino proposals that involve the convention center’s property and said changes in state law may be needed before its sites can accommodate gambling.

Three of the five casino bids the city is evaluating call for using part of the convention complex, either Lakeside Center, McCormick Place North or its truck marshaling yards. Any change in their use would disrupt operations and may cost Chicago convention bookings, Clark said.

Lakeside Center, built in 1967, has been overshadowed by later additions to the complex and its occupancy lags the others. But in her reporting to McCormick Place’s board, Clark said it still draws significant business. Replacing it would require a new $1 billion hall that would take about six years to build, she said.

Lakeside Center “does not sit empty,” she said, with 253 events scheduled through 2035, worth $13.8 billion in economic impact. It also houses mechanical systems for the whole campus.

“The reality is if we lost the Lakeside Center, we’d need to replace 600,000 square feet and all the critical infrastructure,” she said.

Lakeside Center at McCormick Place

Friends of the Parks has come out in favor of turning McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center into a casino.

Sun-Times file

Clark reported that McCormick Place North was booked nearly to its maximum level in the years before the pandemic knocked out most convention business. The marshaling yards, she said, reduce truck congestion and helps exhibitors and contractors set up and take down items quickly.

“In 2019, 35,000 trucks used the marshaling yards and their proximity to our campus is a competitive advantage,” Clark said.

The only proposals that would not touch McCormick Place are a Bally’s bid for the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing site, 777 W. Chicago Ave., or one from Bluhm’s Rivers Casino that relies on 62 vacant acres southwest of Roosevelt Road and Clark Street.

Another Bally’s proposal would put the casino in the marshaling yards, while the second Rivers plan places it in the Lakeside Center. A bid from Hard Rock suggests Lakeside Center or McCormick Place North as temporary sites until a permanent one can be finished nearby on a development site known as One Central.

In her letter, Irizarry listed two overriding concerns in the casino debate: “listening to the community” and “promoting public parkland.”

“We’ve heard strong community concerns about gambling from Chinatown and Bronzeville residents. Certainly, there are some who are excited for jobs for their communities if Chicago must have a casino,” she wrote.

“What we think we are hearing is that McCormick Place Lakeside Center would be the most acceptable location to South Side neighbors.”

Friends of the Parks’ primary interest is preserving open space along the lakefront. The group Landmarks Illinois, which advocates for preserving important buildings, offered a qualified endorsement of the Bluhm plan for Lakeside Center in a Jan. 3 letter.

It said it favors the project because its “reuses a significant historic building. We believe reusing an existing building and surrounding infrastructure is the most environmentally sustainable choice to reduce carbon emissions.”

But the group is was not coming out in favor of a casino for Chicago. Gambling, it said, has “meritorious and deleterious effects” on communities.

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