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No New Park In North Branch Plan Leaves Alderman 'Deeply Disappointed'

By Ted Cox | March 20, 2017 12:42pm | Updated on March 22, 2017 11:45am
 A riverside walkway and wetlands along the Chicago River canal on the east side of Goose Island would be a
A riverside walkway and wetlands along the Chicago River canal on the east side of Goose Island would be a "token" gesture toward creating new open spaces, Ald. Michele Smith said.
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Chicago Department of Planning and Development

LINCOLN PARK — The city has released a draft of the new North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan, without any additional provisions for a major new park in the area.

The Department of Planning and Development released its preliminary draft of the plan late Friday and set a 30-day period for additional public comment before an April 18 deadline, after which the draft will be revised and formally submitted to the Plan Commission. Another community meeting on the plan will also be scheduled along the way.

But the initial draft did not get a welcome reception from Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who has led calls for a park to be addressed in the plan, saying, "It's really our only opportunity to get some useable open space."

 Ald. Michele Smith insists community voices on the North Branch plan
Ald. Michele Smith insists community voices on the North Branch plan "were not heard in this stage of the discussion."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Smith repeated those concerns Monday.

"I, like so many of my constituents, am deeply disappointed in the final ... vision of a once-in-a generation opportunity for splendid urban planning," she said. "Community members have faithfully attended the public meetings and consistently pleaded for multigenerational recreational space, but their voices were not heard in this stage of the discussion."

It's the first of the city's 26 designated industrial corridors to get an updated plan in a comprehensive initiative launched by Mayor Rahm Emanuel a year ago.

The plans will set goals for development and guidelines for zoning changes intended to achieve those goals, but the North Branch Industrial Corridor plan has also proved to be a lightning rod for demands that the city build a major new park somewhere along the 3.7 miles of the North Branch of the Chicago River extending on a diagonal approximately from Chicago Avenue to Fullerton Avenue.

The plan as drafted allows for the city to "incorporate approximately 50 acres of publicly accessible open space through the development of new trails along the river, new wetlands parks, active and passive recreational spaces incorporated into new private projects and other measures."

Smith, however, has previously said she would not accept a riverwalk along the North Branch as a sufficient set-aside, and she again rejected it Monday, calling it "token open spaces" and "not true recreational space."

The plan does suggest that the city press for parkland to be set aside within the next five years in the Finkl Steel development, and in the next 10-20 years at the south end of the corridor just south of Chicago Avenue. The goal there, according to the draft, would be to "create publicly accessible open spaces within a Planned Development for recreational activities."

In general, the plan sets a goal of retaining the North Branch Industrial Corridor as an "economic engine," while reflecting "an ongoing shift from traditional manufacturing toward advanced manufacturing, innovation, high-tech offices and other uses."

To that end, 620 acres of the 760 acres in the district are currently designated as Planned Manufacturing Districts, with no residential zoning allowed, but the plan proposes changing that to allow mixed-used residential and light industrial in the northern third of the corridor — for the most part north of North Avenue.

Goose Island would remain a manufacturing district, along with the land immediately to the east and west of the North Branch and the North Canal surrounding the island. A southern third of the corridor would also be rezoned to allowed mixed-use residential.

The idea is to spur development in the corridor in the information and technology sectors, and at the same time provide new residences and improved transportation to the employees who will be working there.

That will call for a series of new bike and pedestrian bridges laid out in the plan, as well as new bridges on Webster and Cortland avenues. The 606 bike trail would be extended from the west to the river and beyond.

In long-term planning requiring state and federal involvement, the plan also targets a major renovation for the tangled network of viaducts at Ashland, Elston, Armitage and Cortland avenues, as well as a complete upgrade for the Metra Clybourn station there.

"This inclusive, collaborative effort has driven the process of transitioning the industrial corridor to include broader uses that will bring new jobs and help keep families in the City of Chicago," said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd). "As plans evolve, I’ll continue advocating for community priorities including infrastructure upgrades, additional transportation routes and open recreational space."

Hopkins emphasized that the public process was "far from over, and no final decisions have been made."

Smith, however, pointed out that those new residents coming into the area would only increase demand for public open spaces in the already "park-starved communities" surrounding the corridor, including Lincoln Park, West Town, Bucktown and Wicker Park. Smith said the need for a major new park should have received just as much attention as transportation issues.

"Recreational open space should be a guiding principle in the ... plan now and as more specific development discussions proceed at the ward level," she said.