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Industrial, Residential or Both? Predicting The Future of Finkl Steel

By Paul Biasco | February 23, 2015 8:16am
 Demolition of the former A. Finkl & Sons Co. Lincoln Park campus has begun. 
Demolition of the former A. Finkl & Sons Co. Lincoln Park campus has begun. 
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LINCOLN PARK — The shuttered A. Finkl & Sons plant and the surrounding industrial corridor along the river has developers circling and neighborhood groups worried about the future of the site.

The demolition of portions of the former A. Finkl & Sons Co. steel plan is set to begin in early March and what will happen to the roughly 28 acres of prime real estate is a burning question in the neighborhood.

The owners of the former steel plant have been mum on their plans, but neighborhood groups as well as developers and aldermanic candidates say whatever happens will shape the future of the neighborhood.

The land falls under the new 2nd Ward, a race without an incumbent.

"The end of the process will be something that completely changes the neighborhood, not just the neighborhood but really the entire city," said Brian Hopkins, a candidate in the 2nd. "It’s a showpiece for the city. It's riverfront property among other things.”

Paul Biasco discusses the site's future:

The Finkl plant is just one portion of the 115-acre manufacturing district along the river bordering the western edge of Lincoln Park that is in question.

The stretch of industrial plants was marked a manufacturing district in 1988, limiting the type of business and development that can be constructed on the site.

Now that Finkl has left and the Gutmann Tannery has been closed for a number of years, developers and some residents including the RANCH Triangle Community Association are proposing the city drop the planned manufacturing district designation and open up the land for residential development.

The planned manufacturing district (PMD) was originally created to protect high-paying industrial jobs and protect the area from pressure by developers.

Although Finkl left the district, proponents of keeping the designation argue the PMD was a major reason why Finkl was able to grow to a point where it had to move.

Finkl was purchased by a German steel firm in 2008 and the company moved to a facility in the Burnside Industrial corridor. The buildings that once housed the steel giant are now owned by four individuals who are no longer connected to Finkl. The owners obtained demolition permits for six of the properties on the Finkl site between November and December.

Those include a three-story industrial building at 1339 W. Cortland St., a one story building at 1966 N. Southport Ave., a two-story building at 2000 N. Southport Ave., and one- and two-story buildings at 2020 N. Kingsbury Street, 1326 W. Cortland Street and 2001 N. Southport Ave., according to Chicago Cityscape, a service that tracks Chicago's data portal.

An advisory group that oversees economic and employment development in the industrial corridor is in the midst of conducting a two-year study that will result in a plan for the future of the 40-acre site.

That plan could include suggestions for high-tech manufacturing and research and development similar to what is under construction on Goose Island, according to Mike Holzer, executive director of North Branch Works. Holzer argues that the criteria that was used to create the PMD, pressure to redevelop and a concentration of industry, still exist at the site.

While the process to create a plan for the future of the site is still in the community input process, Holzer said developers have been reaching out about projects for the area.

At the same time, the RANCH Triangle Community Association has released an official position that the PMD should be transferred to another part of the city.

Holzer called that idea "laughable," considering it would involve moving roughly 10 existing businesses in the area such as Ozinga Brothers cement, Horween Leather Company, General Iron Industries and C.H. Robinson logistics.

"We don't think there is going to be another steel mill user coming in here, but we have done a market study that shows there are all kinds of PMD uses that want to be here," Holzer said.

A RANCH Triangle's eight-page report on the future of the Clybourn Corridor PMD states that employees who once worked the jobs in the industrial corridor no longer live in the area and those industries should be moved to make way for residential development.

The neighborhood group argues the city is missing out on approximately $13 million annually in additional property taxes that could be generated from residential development.

The group also calls for the creation of a technology employment district in the Clybourn corridor interwoven with residential development.

Scott Nations, who serves on the RANCH Triangle board of directors, said the group does not want to be left behind in development talks.

"Looking at how the situation unfolded with the Children's Memorial Hospital site, we just didn't want to be in a situation where we waited forever and were handed a deal, essentially," Nations said.

Nations said the group fears the land will be "thrown open" to whatever a developer wanted.

"We get the sense that things are moving very quickly and that things will move very quickly and it was vital that we take a leadership position," Nations said.

Holzer said the report was premature and that the neighborhood organization should have waited for North Branch Works to release their plans.

"It really p----- us off, frankly," Holzer said. "We scratched our heads and wonder what is going on over there."

Nations and Holzer also share one concern: that things are moving quickly behind the scenes.

Holzer said his organization, North Branch Works, received a call from a developer in January who was interested in constructing an advanced manufacturing and research and development project similar to the Goose Island UI Labs project.

While he refused to disclose details of the conversation, Holzer said the project would have a larger footprint than UI Labs site and would take up the majority of the Finkl site.

A second project that has been floated for the PMD, a 80,000-square-feet Finch's brewery and taproom, was announced in December but the exact location was not disclosed.

"I think that a lot of people believe the PMD is going to be extinguished and a lot of people are looking at it as an opportunity," Nations said. "We don't have an ax to grind. We just want to make certain what ultimately happens is reasonable and represents the neighborhood."

During a 2nd Ward aldermanic debate last month, Finkl was one of the major topics of discussion among the six candidates.

All six agreed planning for the future of the site would be a major, if not the most important part, of their term if elected.

All of the candidates said they were open to considering, at the least, amending the PMD.

"Manufacturing has sort of left the building," said candidate Alyx Pattison. "It may come back and it may come back slowly, but right now we have to worry about how to use that land to its maximum value and I'm not sure that that is manufacturing today."

Brian Hopkins said "everything should be on the table" and Steve Niketopoulos said he would like the site to remain mostly industrial with some residential.

Bita Buenrostro said the most important thing to do is "take our time" with the plan and Cornell Wilson said what is needed is a larger type of planning.

"Too often aldermen in the city focus and have a myopic view of their ward," Wilson said. "They need to think big. We need to think big."

The project doesn't fall in the 43rd Ward, but aldermanic candidates in the neighboring ward have also been voicing their opinions and argue it will have a huge impact on the neighborhood.

Ald. Michele Smith said she supports a "big community process" for the site, Jen Kramer and Jerry Quandt said they support keeping the PMD and Caroline Vickrey said she would involve a community process and proposed community zoning board.

"There are opportunities to put retail and development and residential there, but I personally think there are better uses of that space for our neighborhood and the people of Chicago," Kramer said.

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