Billions of dollars in commercial real estate development, as well as new sports fields, bridges, a new Metra station and other infrastructure could soon be coming to a 3.7-mile stretch along the Chicago River, after the city on Monday unveiled its final draft of proposed zoning and land use changes.
The plan, released by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s Department of Planning and Development, maps out a framework for the way 760 acres of longtime industrial land will be converted to new uses such as office buildings, apartment towers and hotels near the river on the North Side. The corridor includes the former A. Finkl & Sons steel plant in the Lincoln Park area.
Included in the final plan are 10 additional acres of park space specifically for sports fields, after aldermen along the corridor said previous versions did not address a dearth of open areas for kids and recreational leagues.
The plan is expected to lead to a boom of construction projects roughly bordered by the river and Kennedy Expressway from Kinzie Street all the way north to Wrightwood Avenue. The framework has been in the works for about a year, in response to a wave of major real estate developments being drawn up in an area once dominated by manufacturers.
“I believe this could be the most significant change in zoning policy in the city in 30 years,” said Mike Drew, principal at Structured Development. His firm has developed several properties in and around the industrial corridor, including the recently completed New City retail and residential project at Halsted Street and Clybourn Avenue.
“I think it has the opportunity to have the largest economic impact on the city since the development of Millennium Park,” Drew said. “Millennium Park drove billions of dollars of development around it, and I think this initiative has the opportunity to dwarf that.”
The final plan, which follows more than a dozen public meetings, is expected to be considered, and approved, by the Chicago Plan Commission at its May 18 meeting. That will pave the way for the City Council to take additional steps, including removing some planned manufacturing district zoning that expressly prohibits many uses, such as residences and hotels.
The framework recommends eliminating the city’s original planned manufacturing district, which includes the Finkl site.
Once zoning policy is changed, specific development plans — including Sterling Bay’s long-anticipated vision for more than 40 acres on and around the Finkl site — will be submitted to the city. Each specific project will go through a formal zoning process with the city, guided by the plan.
“I think there is pent-up demand to begin reusing these larger vacant parcels,” said David Reifman, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development. “I think we will see a lot of activity on large parcels and small parcels. I expect people to fairly quickly look to begin redevelopment.”
The addition of more park space for sports fields came after aldermen of wards along the North Branch Industrial Corridor protested that previous versions of the plan didn’t do enough to address a dearth of space for kids and adult sporting events.
Aldermen Brian Hopkins, 2nd; Michele Smith, 43rd; and Scott Waguespack, 32nd, had been pushing to have 15 acres of space set aside for sports fields, after previous versions of the plan only recommended land be set aside for other uses, such as riverfront trails and wetlands.
Hopkins said in addition to the 10 acres in the city’s plan, other projects in his ward will create another 5 acres of space for athletic fields. The fields are likely to be spread across several new developments, rather than all at one site, he said.
“The developers have all been put on notice that athletic and recreational fields will be required as part of planned developments,” Hopkins said. “And it may wind up being more than 10 acres. The additional 10 acres is a floor, not a ceiling.”
Infrastructure improvements will be crucial as already highly populated areas add new workers and residents, Hopkins said.
One other potential change could be relocating the current Metra train station at Elston and Armitage avenues about a block south to a building at Besly Court and Cortland Street that Sterling Bay owns, Hopkins said. That site also could be used to extend The 606 elevated trail east of the Kennedy Expressway, with the trail going over or under the new Metra station, Hopkins said.