LINCOLN PARK — Could the Finkl Steel site become a movie studio? What about a booming tech campus?
Nearly 300 community leaders and residents hailing from Lincoln Park to Wicker Park convened at DePaul University's student center building, 2250 N. Sheffield Ave., Tuesday evening to share their vision for the 28-acre former Finkl Steel mill and surrounding industrial area along the Chicago River — what's considered one of the biggest redevelopment opportunities in the city.
More spoke out in favor of removing the area's longstanding industrial zoning designation than against it — but only by a slight margin.
The unprecedented move — championed by Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) — would open up the Clybourn Corridor to more types of development like offices and homes.
It would be the first time Chicago has ever removed the industrial zoning designation. Clybourn Corridor became Chicago's first Planned Manufacturing District in 1988. Today, there are 15 other such districts in the city.
"We're struggling mightily across the city and we need to do everything we can to increase revenue. I believe that's done by reversing" the Planned Manufacturing District, said Tim Egan, 2nd Ward committeeman and former 2nd Ward aldermanic candidate.
On the other side of the issue were folks like John McDermott, who works for Logan Square Neighborhood Association in community housing and land use.
"If there is a company that is polluting your neighborhood, target the company," he said, responding to complaints about metal scrap yard General Iron, which was recently shut down by the city. "But don't take the rest of the site down with it."
Most neighbors gave a broad vision on what they'd like to see: High-paying jobs, updated infrastructure and an overall compatibility with the existing community all came up repeatedly.
Others, like Randy Steinmeyer, the former president of the RANCH Triangle neighborhood group, gave a more specific vision. Steinmeyer said he'd like to see hi-tech offices and homes built on the site. But he also suggested building a movie studio.
Alyx Pattison, former 2nd Ward aldermanic challenger to Hopkins, stressed the importance of incorporating new transportation along the Chicago river.
"Think about the river as a transportation corridor as you plan this. We built on waterways for a reason, and it's a way to move people and unplug the traffic," she said.
Hopkins himself began the meeting by pitching neighbors on an innovative idea to use smart traffic signal technology to reduce congestion on North Avenue. Essentially, the Surtrac technology uses a series of detectors in the street to determine things like the speed of traffic and length of cars to optimize traffic and minimize wait times.
A recent study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University found that the Surtrac technology led to a 40 percent decrease in traffic wait time and a 26 percent decrease in travel time, according to Joe Schwieterman, a DePaul University transportation expert.
As part of the redevelopment process, developers will be asked to put money toward infrastructure updates like improving North Avenue, Hopkins said.
"I'm going to insist that whatever happens here cannot happen until we find the money to pay for community benefits like increasing efficiency of our road system," Hopkins said.
For the last hour of the meeting, neighbors mapped out ideas in groups, or what's referred to as a charrette in the design world.
Hopkins set a second community meeting for 6 p.m. June 6 at UI Labs, 1415 N. Cherry St. Officials from the city's department of planning will be there to unveil ideas for the area that Hopkins said he hasn't even seen yet.
Until then, Hopkins said he'll be working with the community to come up with more ideas and continue to get feedback on his plan to scrap the area's industrial zoning designation.
"It's possible that we could come to a consensus relatively soon," Hopkins said. "If that happens, we don't need a lot of meetings. Conversely, if the community remains divided and if we don't resolve that over time and we don't have a developer who steps forward with something that I can accept, we're going to have many more community meetings."
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