New music venue at former Morton Salt site clears key hurdle

Creating an “outdoor entertainment venue liquor license” is a big step toward holding concerts this summer at the former Morton Salt facility, 1357 N. Elston Ave. But two alderpersons are a little salty about the prospect.

SHARE New music venue at former Morton Salt site clears key hurdle
The former Morton Salt factory, 1357 N. Elston Ave., shown in February.

The former site of Morton Salt on North Elston Avenue is being turned into an entertainment venue. A series of outdoor concerts at the Salt Shed is planned for this summer.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to create an “outdoor entertainment venue liquor license” in time for live music this summer at the Morton Salt Shed cleared a key hurdle Wednesday, amid concern that it would pave the way for more of the same at Lincoln Yards and the River West site of a Chicago casino.

The City Council’s License Committee advanced the mayor’s plan 13-2, over strenuous objections from neighboring Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), and Friends of the Chicago River.

Smith’s motion to postpone the vote for at least a month to work out the kinks failed by a closer vote, 8 to 5.

Smith is the mayoral ally who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight.

During a surprisingly lengthy debate on an outdoor music venue project years in the making, Smith argued the planned development of the Morton Salt facility, 1357 N. Elston Ave., never contemplated an outdoor music venue, let alone an arena with 3,000 seats located just 125 feet from residential buildings.

Of even greater concern to Smith is that the mayor’s ordinance would open the door to similarly large outdoor riverfront music venues at two nearby sites: the proposed Bally’s casino at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street in River West, and the massive mixed-use development known as Lincoln Yards.

“This is a dramatic U-turn. Even if this is a great project — I mean, it’s a beautiful project. But this ordinance allows large-scale venues in ways that will dramatically impact the entire area. We are now trumpeting the Chicago River as a new entertainment corridor,” Smith said.

Smith branded the ordinance a “new turn against” Chicago’s plan to “spread entertainment into the neighborhoods.” She noted the city has made “substantial investments” in the Uptown Theater, the Congress Theater and “many venues” on the South Side.

“I am very concerned that this will bring a level of, once again, downtown-centered, white-people-oriented kinds of entertainment that will really hurt smaller venues and other large venues that intend to compete,” she said.

Prior to the final vote, Smith read directly from a letter from Friends of the Chicago River strongly opposing the Morton Salt music venue and the potential for a similar concert space at a Bally’s Chicago casino.

Those guidelines are “incompatible” with the city’s own river design guidelines, which called for a “connected greenway along the river that overlooks public parks and natural habitats” thereby offering a “peaceful, natural contrast to the urban environment,” the letter states.

Reilly focused on the door that has now been flung wide open for even more outdoor music venues close to residential buildings.

“If it only applied to Morton Salt, I wouldn’t have an issue with it. But, as Ald. Smith mentioned, this keeps the door open for lots of other open-air venues, possibly along the river and certainly, the Chicago casino site would also fit the criteria,” Reilly said.

“I’m also concerned about that 125 feet [buffer from nearby residences]. When you look at the proposed casino venue, conveniently that leaves out about 7,000 residents of River North from that notice area. That’s of considerable concern to me.”

Reilly cited his notorious struggles with what he called “bad liquor license owners” downtown.

“Say we have a venue that opens. They’ve invested these millions and millions of dollars in it. And they become a chronic source of nuisance complaints. Imagine families with young children, babies. … And multiple nights a week, their windows are shaking because, unfortunately for them, they have speakers facing across a river at them,” Reilly said.

“Say we get 100 complaints a month. What remedy would exist? The venue — whether at the casino site or another part of the river — would argue, ‘We’ve invested all this money. You’re not shutting us down. We’re gonna fight you in court.’”

Noting that he struggled with abuses at Bottled Blonde for years before shutting that bar down, Reilly said: “This is a venue on steroids.”

Local Liquor Control Commissioner Shannon Trotter said the new venue will have a liquor license as well as a public place of amusement license.

“All of those are subject to all of the regular disciplinary or public nuisance processes that we have,” Trotter said.

“But we’re really trying to design the ordinance so that any outdoor music does not create a nuisance. That’s why you see … all special events and/or concerts at any concert venue or sports stadium — they all end at 10 [p.m.]. Amplified sound throughout the city ends at 10. And this ordinance is consistent with that. It’s also consistent with patio hours.”

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes both the Morton Salt and Bally’s casino sites, took umbrage at the claim that the planned development never contemplated an outdoor music venue.

“What we’re doing over here is no secret. This stuff actually started under the past administration,” Burnett said.

“We changed the PMD [planned manufacturing district] to allow for all of these things to happen and everybody was on board. Now we’re at the ninth hour and it’s like a big deal.” 

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