LINCOLN PARK — The nonprofit group North Branch Works has spent the past two years conducting a $200,000 study creating the ideal plan to keep jobs and industry at the former Finkl Steel plant along the Chicago River.
But the actual owners of the three parcels of land that the group has been studying and creating plans for have not participated in the effort.
Those moves have some stakeholders questioning whether the entire planning process has been futile.
"Finkl moving forward with demo was bad," said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). "The city should have stepped in and said don't do it."
Paul Biasco discusses the future of the Finkl site:
One of the hopes of planners and preservations groups was that some of the Finkl Steel buildings would be saved or re-purposed in future redevelopment. Preservation Chicago listed the Finkl campus on its annual 7 Most Endangered Buildings list in March.
The site falls in the newly mapped 2nd Ward, but Waguespack and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) both say they will be heavily involved with any development process.
"It's private property. I've consistently said that this is a site of very great interest to people in our ward," Smith said. "There will undoubtedly be a lot of community input."
Brian Hopkins' first year as an alderman of the 2nd Ward will come as a trial by fire with the development process, which is considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redevelop a massive site along the river in Lincoln Park.
Hopkins says he hasn't met with any of the land owners yet, but he is laying the groundwork for moving forward.
"Private land owners are free to engage in sales transactions if they wish to do that, but nothing is going to happen in terms of new uses without a full community process," Hopkins said.
Even one of the consultants on the project indicated the plans were those that North Branch Works, an industrial group, found ideal.
"This is highly speculative," said Dan Rapple, director of Sustainable Design with Koo and Associates, consultants on the study. "There's no developer involved at this point."
Waguespack said he has been pushing the commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development and the city to bring all the stakeholders to the table including himself, Hopkins and Smith.
"You need to have the property owners there," Waguespack said. "You have to have the different organizations including the neighborhood groups at the table when we do this."
While multiple stakeholders and groups all want to have a say in the process, including the non-profit Ranch Triangle Community Conservation Association, which is pushing for the land to include residential and a high-tech manufacturing woven together, the land is privately owned.
Another group from the neighborhood directly east of the site is pushing for a majority residential plan.
"It's still a long way off. It’s private property," Waguespack said. "Nothing is stopping them from moving ahead and selling a piece.”
If the parcels begin to sell piece-by-piece, which is a possibility given that a 3.24-acre piece of the 28-acre study area is for sale, the whole plan would fall apart.
"If the lot-by-lot development starts to occur, all those plans will be thrown out the window," said Alan Mellis, a Lincoln Park resident who is engaged in community planning meetings.
North Branch Works used a $200,000 grant from the U.S. EPA federal to conduct the two-year market analysis of the site, said Mike Holzer, executive director of non-profit community development group. The city was onboard with their proposals, he added.
"The city planning, in a meeting last week, said they were very supportive of doing a plan that would include the whole corridor and would be similar to the plan in the Fulton Market [District]," said Donna Ducharme, a senior advisor from the Delta Institute, a consultant on the project.
North Branch Works, which has been working to keep jobs in the corridor since 1982, presented its finding of its two-year study last week, offering three possibilities for the site, none of which feature any residential uses:
- A lot-by-lot solution where the current owners of the properties sell individual buildings or parcels.
- A "master developer" scheme where a developer would lay out an organized grand plan for the site.
- A corporate campus layout.
The analysis was based on assuming the current zoning of the site, which falls in a city-designated planned manufacturing district designed to foster the city's industrial base, would remain the same.
The biggest concern raised during the final meeting was transportation.
The consultants on the study as well as Holzer laid out multiple areas of improvement they would like to see the city and transportation groups implement.
The study concluded that their ideal plans would see 5,000 to 6,000 workers on the site.
Regardless of what happens, it's clear that the land is highly sought after by some of the biggest developers in Chicago who, unlike the owners of the land, have been attending the North Branch Works meetings.
Hopkins said his background as president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents has allowed him to gain experience dealing with developers and the community process surrounding major projects.
"That type of process is easily portable," he said. "I'm very familiar on how to do this even though I'm still getting to know all the various stakeholders and players moving forward."
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