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Finkl Steel One Step Closer To Residential, Retail Mix As City Unveils Plan

By Mina Bloom | August 11, 2016 12:41pm
 Finkl Steel Demolition
Finkl Steel Demolition
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LINCOLN PARK — The city threw its full support behind bringing homes, retail and office space to the North Branch Industrial Corridor Wednesday, and revealed plans that show how they'd balance manufacturing with increased foot traffic. 

"The work they've done is both visionary and bold," Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said in his opening remarks at the meeting held at UI Labs, 1415 N. Cherry St., Wednesday evening. "It's also necessary because cities are dynamic entities, they change constantly."

Eleanor Gorski, the city's deputy commissioner of Planning and Development, laid out the city's short-term and long-term plans for the entire corridor at the meeting, which is the second step in a six-month process to modernize the area.

The short-term plans were developed because the land in the corridor is in "various states of changing hands or being used for different purposes," Gorski said.

"We are anticipating that vacant lots may change in time," she said, adding that some existing industrial businesses also may choose to move.

There's been much debate about the future of the 40-acre Finkl Steel site — considered one of the biggest redevelopment opportunities in the city — and based on plans revealed Thursday, big changes are coming. 

The city's "short-term" plan for the corridor. [All photos Courtesy/Department of Planning and Development]

The city's "long-term" plan for the industrial corridor.

Finkl Steel is just one site, and the entire North Branch Industrial Corridor is up for modernization.

The corridor, which includes portions of Lincoln Park, West Town and the Near North Side, is roughly bounded by Fullerton on the north, Kingsbury Street and the North Branch of the Chicago River on the east, Kinzie Street on the south and Interstate 90/94 on the west.

The city envisions other portions of the corridor becoming mixed-use as well. 

For planning purposes, the city divided the corridor into three zones: the dynamic zone, the stable zone and the transitional zone.

The dynamic zone is the northernmost portion of the corridor, which includes a diverse group of sites like the Finkl Steel site, cement maker Ozinga and metal scrap yard General Iron. The stable zone is the middle portion, which includes Goose Island. The transitional zone is the southernmost portion, which is surrounded by Downtown zoning and includes sites like the Tribune printing facility. 

According to maps presented at the meeting, the city envisions the dynamic zone (which is also the largest zone) undergoing the most changes if the plan gets approval.

"We don't have it all cooked tonight," Gorski said. "We will be meeting throughout the fall as well as hiring a consultant."

To protect the redeveloped Finkl Steel site and other new mixed-use areas from remaining industrial businesses, buffer zones would be established, Gorski explained. Those zones would mimic existing buffer zones, like the retail strip including Whole Foods, 1550 N. Kingsbury St., which separates people from industrial businesses to the north.

Next, the city's Transportation Department will conduct traffic studies on the corridor, which should be complete by the summer of 2017. The city is planning to host public meetings on potential infrastructure changes sometime in September.

Once a final plan is complete in early 2017, it will go to the city's Plan Commission for approval.

"It will end up something good"

After the meeting, Finkl's longtime CEO and current property owner, Bruce Liimatainen, appeared hopeful.

"I'm very confident for the city of Chicago, and for us, it will end up something ... not good, but very good," he said of the future of the land.

Liimatainen wouldn't comment on which developers are interested in the property or whether he supports the city's vision. (Chicago-based developer Sterling Bay bought a set of properties next to Finkl, and is rumored to be eyeing the entire Finkl site.)

"We're not trying to be the planners," he said.

But Liimatainen did say that industrial jobs no longer appeal to North Siders: "The jobs are different now. They don't want to work at a steel mill on the North Side." 

Though the meeting was absent of public disapproval, the debate over the future of the North Side industrial corridor is long from over.

Mike Holzer, executive director for community group North Branch Works, who has long fought to keep industrial jobs in the area, said he doesn't support the city's vision. 

"The mixed-use very much concerns me," Holzer said after the meeting. "A lot of these companies have told us that the [Planned Manufacturing District] is a functioning ecosystem for their business, and they need the PMDs to be maintained. This process has uncorked the biggest amount of pressure you could possibly have."

Holzer questioned the idea of buffer zones, calling the city's explanation of them "vague."

"To draw a fence around a heavy industrial use and call that a buffer ... that will not be effective for these businesses," he said. 

He said the city's support of the ill-defined buffer zones will make it more difficult to keep the area industrial. The fear is that if manufacturers aren't fully separated from homes and retail, they eventually will be forced out by angry residents and leaders. 

"With the mayor and current commissioner behind this, those are two people we need to be working with, educating and winning over," he said. "We have some work to do."

See the city's entire presentation online.

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