SOUTH LOOP — The biggest Downtown development site has an equally big wish list from the city and neighbors.
City officials and South Loop neighbors alike are wondering what Related Midwest will do with its new, massive riverfront site after closing on the 62-acre tract at Clark Street and Roosevelt Road this week. The Chicago developer has yet to share its plans for the new neighborhood it's going to build, but local pols and the people who live nearby already have plenty of ideas.
"I see a riverwalk, I see some residential, I see some commercial, possibly a school," said Ald. Danny Solis (25th), whose ward includes the site. "You’re looking at one of the biggest chunks of developable land that Chicago has seen in a very long time."
The half-mile property from Roosevelt Road to 16th Street has sat fallow for ages as developers concentrated on Downtown areas to the north. Disgraced developer Tony Rezko once planned more than 4,000 homes on the site, but sold the property in 2005 to a foreign investor that left it vacant during the ensuing recession.
With a new developer in charge, plans are likely to change. The city's department of planning and development has already outlined its goals for the site: a direct connection between Chinatown and the South Loop, new "quality-of-life amenities" along the south branch of the Chicago River and a renewed effort to turn Roosevelt Road into the premier shopping district of the Near South Side.
“This will be one of the largest development projects in Chicago’s history, and I look forward to working with our private partners to transform this site and create economic opportunities for residents in every part of Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement Thursday.
The project will speed up the arrival of the Wells-Wentworth Connector, a long-planned thoroughfare that would run through the site from Cermak Road to Roosevelt and create a north-south link between Chinatown and Downtown, Solis said. Some work on the road has already been done, but the rest of the project has been on hold as city officials awaited the development of the Clark/Roosevelt site, he said.
The south branch of the river used to meander along the site, but the city spent millions during the 1920s and '30s to dig a channel and straighten the river, making it more navigable for large cargo barges. Rezko's company considered restoring the river to its natural route after paying $70 million for the riverfront site in 2002, according to a Sun-Times article then.
Turning the Chicago River into a destination has long been a priority of Emanuel's, and it's likely new "riverwalks" city officials eye for two major projects directly north of the Related Midwest site — the Old Main Post Office and the Riverline project at Harrison and Wells streets — would continue south through Related Midwest's new neighborhood down to Chinatown's Ping Tom Park.
"What makes it all special is the river," Solis said.
Rezko had also been in talks with Ikea to anchor the retail portion of his development, and a Clark Street underpass off Roosevelt was built to serve traffic going down to his planned project. But the furniture store pulled out amid project delays. New retail on Roosevelt would complement Roosevelt Collection, a shopping center across the street that opened during the recession but has since shown recent signs of health with a new owner.
Solis said Related Midwest is drawing up "some options" after privately showing him a "very rough" development proposal earlier. The developer, which has yet to make its plans public, said Thursday that any project would be built in phases over many years and likely cost billions of dollars.
Solis declined to detail his negotiations with the developer, but said he would "rather not" allocate tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars toward the project. Solis plans to host neighborhood presentations for the project once Related Midwest's plans are made public.
Looking south at the Clark and Roosevelt development site. [DNAinfo/David Matthews]
What Neighbors Want
Related Midwest's development is good news to the homeowners of the South Loop who stand to benefit from new retail and rising real estate prices stemming from the thousands of homes developers plan in the area. But some are also concerned the new homes are coming too fast to an area they feel is lacking the necessary infrastructure to support them.
While the Wells-Wentworth Connector would direct cars north and south, an east-west alternative to Roosevelt Road is sorely needed, said Jeff Key, a director of the Greater South Loop Association neighborhood group. That need will likely intensify as Related Midwest's project and others sprout through the neighborhood, he said. If drivers don't take Roosevelt, they take 18th Street, which has just one lane in each direction.
"We are choked east-west," Key said.
Southgate Market, a shopping center at Taylor and Canal streets, brought the beginnings of a Taylor Street bridge west of the river, but the work has yet to be completed. Like the Wells-Wentworth Connector, new developments in the area will likely accelerate the completion of the Taylor Street bridge, Solis said.
The new neighborhood will need not only improved access but also a new school, South Loop residents say.
South Loop Elementary School, 1212 S. Plymouth Court, was built for 580 students in 1988, but now houses nearly 900. The neighborhood high school is Phillips Academy, a Bronzeville school several miles south on Pershing Road with boundaries stretching from Wacker Drive to 67th Street.
The elementary school's overcrowding problem is only expected to worsen amid new development, and Solis said a new elementary or high school could be considered for the Related Midwest site.
And that's good news to neighbors, many of whom notice South Loop families with toddlers, but not too many with teenagers.
"Not everyone is getting into St. Ignatius or Jones" College Prep High School, said Tina Feldstein, president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, another South Loop development group. "More people are great, but we need a new high school. We need to keep people here."
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