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North Branch Plan Would Tangle Traffic, Ignores Need For Park, Group Says

By Ted Cox | April 17, 2017 6:37pm | Updated on April 19, 2017 11:50am
 RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association President Reathe Kay is
RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association President Reathe Kay is "disappointed" the city can't commit to finding some land along the North Branch of the Chicago River for a major new park.
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C.H. Robinson

RANCH TRIANGLE — A local Lincoln Park group is rejecting the latest tweaks to the North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan and accuses the city of trying to discourage public comment on the need for a major new park.

The board of the RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association unanimously rejected the latest proposed recommendations on the plan last week, submitted by the business-oriented North Branch Works, saying they didn't address persistent questions on the need for better transportation and a major new park, according to President Reatha Kay.

Kay said the city's Department of Planning and Development "seems to be ignoring that there's a development at Children's Hospital and a development at Lathrop Homes."

 RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association President Reatha Kay says the city is ignoring calls for a major recreational park.
RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association President Reatha Kay says the city is ignoring calls for a major recreational park.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

While admitting that the hospital and Lathrop Homes are not technically within the North Branch Industrial Corridor, a 3.7-mile area running along the Chicago River, Kay said that the thousands of new residents brought in by those projects — as well as at the Finkl Steel site — would tangle traffic in the corridor and burden overtaxed city parks, especially in Lincoln Park.

"I can't understand how it can be viewed in a vacuum," Kay said of the North Branch Corridor. "It's just astounding to me that they're not even mentioned."

The North Branch Industrial Corridor is the first of 26 such city industrial areas getting updated modernization plans, which will dictate the goals and limits for development in the area for decades. The plan is slated for approval by the Plan Commission late next month.

According to Krista Elam, director of economic development for North Branch Works, it held a community meeting in March including several local groups, such as the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, the Wrightwood Neighbors Association and the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, as well as RANCH Triangle, and gathered the feedback into a document sent back out to the groups.

Main issues, Elam said, were transportation, density of proposed housing and funding, as well as open space. RANCH Triangle, she said, was the only group so far to reject the modernization proposal out of hand.

North Branch Works represents the existing businesses in the North Branch and Addison industrial corridors, and the group has been leery of plans to open up the north and south ends of the area to residential use.

"We share a lot of the concerns," Elam said, including transportation and density of development.

Kay also took issue with what she charged were city attempts to "dissuade" public comments on a major public park, even as Planning and Development has extended the public comment period to next month as it prepares the final draft for the modernization plan.

Kay pointed to a department email that went out to local residents Friday that she said set up a straw-man argument to knock down calls for a major new park, a hot-button issue since 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith initiated calls for it to be addressed in the modernization plan late last year.

The department email quotes an unnamed respondent as saying: "If you don't create a 10- to 15-acre open-space park in the Finkl Steel property ... where else in the 43rd Ward could it be created? I cannot fathom why a 10- to 15-acre park is not proposed by the DPD for the Finkl site."

The email immediately points readers to a Chicago Park District land-acquisition plan and a city open-space inventory map, both of which suggest Lincoln Park is amply served by Lincoln Park itself along the lakefront.

"During the public comment period, I don't understand why they're trying to convince people that open space isn't needed," Kay said. "I was disappointed the DPD was trying to dissuade people from making comments about open space."

Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for Planning and Development, responded that "public comments have been an essential component of the nearly yearlong North Branch planning process, and the city's efforts to balance the needs of residents and businesses throughout the area."

Strazzabosco said the plan is intended to maintain the corridor as "a vibrant, mixed-use business environment."

He added, "The plan calls for up to 60 acres of new open space to be created over the next 15 years. The open-space strategy is focused on public and private improvements that are available to the public year-round; designed for a range of ages and abilities; and enhance the health of residents, workers, the environment, and wildlife."

City officials have persistently rejected the idea of using eminent domain to seize land for a major public park, as at the former Finkl Steel site, and have pointed to the 60 acres proposed for a riverwalk running down both sides of the river in the corridor, as well as a proposed wetlands park at the turnaround basin at the north end of Goose Island at North Avenue.

Strazzabosco echoed that, saying, "Additional refinements to open-space projects will occur through the planned development process and detailed project review," on each independent development as they arise.

Kay dismissed the 60-acre riverwalk, however, saying, "It's a linear space that really doesn't invite anything. Who's going to use it? It's not going to be parents and children. It's not going to be people playing sports. It'll be people riding bikes."

She compared it to the 606, which she said also had not addressed the need for a major park in the Wicker Park-Bucktown area to the west of the corridor, which also figures to be directly affected by the North Branch plan.

Strazzabosco insisted, "Lincoln Park is the seventh most well-served community in the city in terms of open space per capita" and said that the Park District's planning documents indicate "there is no need to pursue open-space acquisition in this community."

Kay said that the city itself has labeled Lincoln Park a "magnet park," serving residents not only across the city but the suburbs too, and shouldn't be considered in standards set for the amount of park space per capita in a given neighborhood.

"Having the lakefront park really doesn't serve the whole neighborhood," she said.

Kay said she'd sent a letter to Planning and Development in January laying out the case for a major new park. Although the city claims to be welcoming the comments, she said, it was actually turning a deaf ear to them. It's made no substantial changes regarding a park in documents the Plan Commission will consider next month, Kay said.

Without such changes, she said, the RANCH Triangle Association would not be likely to endorse the final draft.

"I don't want to speak for the board without having talked with them," Kay said, "but I can't imagine that we'd be satisfied and that we wouldn't continue to raise our concerns."

Planning and Development has scheduled two last open houses to gather public comment from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday in Room 1003-A at City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St., and from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at St. John Cantius Church, 825 N. Carpenter St.