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Taller Buildings — But No Major Park — Pushed In North Branch Guidelines

By Ted Cox | March 27, 2017 4:21pm | Updated on March 28, 2017 9:31am
 The 18-acre Fleet Management lot at 1685 N. Throop St. will not be considered for a public park.
The 18-acre Fleet Management lot at 1685 N. Throop St. will not be considered for a public park.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — The Department of Planning and Development set tentative guidelines for future development along the North Branch Industrial Corridor over the weekend, but again declined to set aside any public land for a major new park as part of the corridor's ongoing modernization plan.

According to Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), the city has ruled out any notion of converting the Fleet Management lot at 1685 N. Throop St. into a park, even though it's the only major piece of city-owned property in the 760 acres of the corridor, running on a diagonal over 3.7 miles between the Damen Avenue bridge to the northwest and Kinzie Avenue to the southeast.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) has said the city needs to create a major new park to serve residents from Lincoln Park to Wicker Park, and has seized on the North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan as a way of addressing that issue.

"The city has given us a flat-out 'no' to our request to put a park on the site of the old fleet center," Hopkins said Monday.

"It's the only opportunity we have for a large parcel of publicly owned land," he added. "The Mayor's Office and the Planning Department have said unequivocally that they're not willing to move the fleet center unless the transaction itself can be self-supporting."

The lot is being offered for development, contingent on the developer also building a replacement Fleet Management lot in Englewood. That would most likely dictate a highly commercial development on the old Throop lot, although Hopkins added, "If there's anything left over from that transaction, it needs to go to the community benefit."

That said, Hopkins added that he was pleased with new guidelines the Department of Planning and Development delivered online late Friday setting goals for the creation of public open spaces, even as he said they needed "more specificity."

Hopkins said, "There's some things in there that clearly show a response to the community's request for more open and recreational space" and that he sensed "movement" on the part of city planners, although he quickly added, "It doesn't go far enough."

He specifically cited a proposal at the end of the guidelines stating the principle to "create publicly accessible open spaces within planned developments for recreational activities," a concept that had been pushed at public meetings, but which Hopkins said was new being put down on paper as a set guideline.

"That's something that we've added listening to the public at our meetings," said Eleanor Gorski, deputy commissioner in Planning and Development, although she also pointed out how it was mentioned in the plan framework released to the public the week before.

The guidelines make it clear that building developments along the North Branch of the Chicago River would be allowed to grow higher if they set aside more open space on the ground level.

"Buildings should frame public open spaces and add vitality to the public realm," the guidelines state. They set a goal to create "publicly available open spaces within planned developments."

That figures to have a key impact on the Sterling Bay development at the old Finkl Steel site, as well as other projects to come in the decades ahead. "That is what we're encouraging," Gorski said.

"That wasn't originally in there," Hopkins said. "That was added because of pressure from the community."

The guidelines set three basic goals: to maintain the North Branch Industrial corridor as an "economic engine," especially in the growing information and technology industries, including mixed-use residential areas to house employees; to provide better transportation into and out of the corridor, including pedestrian bridges, bike lanes and perhaps light rail; and to "build upon the North Branch Industrial Corridor's unique natural and built environment," including a riverwalk on both sides of the North Branch, as well as preserving iconic "character buildings" like the Morton Salt sheds and the Prairie Materials silos.

Transportation improvements, including the renovation of several bridges, got much of the attention during the nine public meetings that have been held by the department on the corridor thus far, and they were widely covered in the guidelines released on Friday as well, although not in the detail Hopkins might have liked.

"This document is light on specifics when it comes to parks and infrastructure," he said.

The Department of Planning and Development scheduled a final public meeting from 8 a.m.-1 p.m. April 7 at City Hall, in Room 1003-A, ahead of delivery of its final draft, to be presented to the Plan Commission April 20.

Community activist Allan Mellis, however, said that schedule was rushed, calling the April 7 event "not a public meeting but rather a drop-in." He pointed out that, with the department accepting public input online through April 18, "they should delay [the] Plan Commission hearing to be able to incorporate community comments."

Gorski said they were sticking to that schedule, "pending how many comments we get or any changes we have to make."