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Massive Overhaul Of Riverfront Land OK'd Over Criticism On Parks, Traffic

By Ted Cox | May 18, 2017 2:27pm
 The North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan will set guidelines for development along the Chicago River for decades.
The North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan will set guidelines for development along the Chicago River for decades.
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C.H. Robinson

CITY HALL — The Plan Commission approved the North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan Thursday over the opposition of aldermen and community groups who said it doesn't make enough provisions for parkland and will end up causing traffic congestion in the area.

The commission voted unanimously to adopt the plan, which will dictate development for decades on 760 acres along a 3.7-mile stretch of the Chicago River between the Fullerton Avenue bridge and Kinzie Avenue.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) led the opposition, calling for the plan to address the need for a major new park, but commissioners ultimately decided to accept the plan as is.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it "represents countless hours of community input and thoughtful planning designed to balance the needs of community members and local businesses while paving the way to a bright future for the north branch industrial corridor. Emanuel added it "will also generate revenue from this thriving area to support industrial businesses throughout Chicago."

 Ald. Brian Hopkins guaranteed he'd get
Ald. Brian Hopkins guaranteed he'd get "at least" 10 acres of parkland added in individual developments, while Ald. Michele Smith sought more concrete provisions on a major new park.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Smith said the need for a major 15-acre park was "critical and overlooked." Citing Logan Square and Near North Side neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Bucktown and West Town as well as her own Lincoln Park, Smith said, "These communities are simply out of places to play."

Smith called the late concession to grant at least 10 acres of parkland in the area "a gesture and not the necessary commitment to address this need."

Eleanor Gorski, deputy commissioner in the Department of Planning and Development, called the plan "a guide" for future developments, adding that park space would best be achieved through agreements with individual developers.

But Smith countered that would be "entirely dependent on individual developers" and would create "a patchwork of open spaces," not a "contiguous" park.

"Our requirement and your duty is simple — to keep this city livable," Smith told the commission.

"Our neighbors are concerned," said Ted Wrobleski, vice president of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association. "Although we support the framework," he added, "it gives us a concern about the adequacy of open land.

"We need some more parkland," he added. "We need recreational parkland."

Steve Randall, president of the Oz Park Baseball Association, said it had 1,345 kids enrolled this year, 200 of them girls playing softball, but that it had a waiting list of 200 because of a lack of fields. "We need facilities," he said, calling it "critical" to get a major new park.

Kenneth Dotson, president of the Lincoln Central Association, labeled the need for a new park "severe." Calling Oz Park "overcrowded and overrun with ballgames," he added, "It's gone from being a beautiful neighborhood park to being an overcrowded park that happens to be in our neighborhood."

Reatha Kay, president of the RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association, called the 10-acre figure "an illusory promise." Mentioning how the city had ruled out converting its own Fleet Management lot at 1685 N. Throop St. for a park, she compared the plan to the infamous parking-meter deal, in that "the city will forfeit much more than it gains."

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) guaranteed it, however. Touting how he was the one who had the language on the 10 acres added to the plan, he said, "This is only the beginning of where we're we're going with this.

"Every developer is on notice," Hopkins said, "that it will be a requirement" to add open public space to any development.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th), a member of the Plan Commission, asked how much the city would lose in tax revenue by setting aside 15 acres for a park. Gorski said it was impossible to give a precise answer, but estimated as much as $150 million over time.

"That's the kind of tradeoff we can't afford," Moore said.

David Reifman, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development and likewise a commission member, said a football field was about an acre and pointed out that 15 acres would be more than half of the entire Finkl Steel development. He called for "balance" in weighing competing issues.

Gorski pointed out the plan was intended above all to maintain the North Branch Industrial Corridor as an "economic engine" and job center, even as it makes the transition from manufacturing to information and technology industries. "Our main goal is to create jobs, create investment and create tax revenues for the City of Chicago," she said.

"I'm hard-pressed to come out and say I fully support this framework plan," said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward extends into the corridor. "We're underestimating the impact it will have on surrounding communities," he said, calling an estimate that 7,500 residents would be added by throwing the area just north of Goose Island open to mixed-used residential developments "a far cry from what we will actually see."

He said that influx of residents in the coming years would wreak havoc on traffic, public transportation and schools, a point also made by Allan Mellis of the Wrightwood Neighbors Association.

"Our No. 1 concern is traffic congestion," Mellis said.

The plan was backed by many business groups like the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, but North Branch Works, which represents the manufacturing businesses along the river in the area, came out in opposition. Larry Bennett, the group's executive director, said allowing residential developments north and south of Goose Island diminished areas protected as Primary Manufacturing Districts and "threatens many businesses in the area." He urged "substantial changes" for "keeping manufacturing alive."

Commission member Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said throwing the area open to residential developments is in effect pricing existing businesses out, a point made with this week's reported purchase of Sipi Metals, 1720 N. Elston Ave., by Sterling Bay, which has already bought the Finkl Steel site and other properties in the immediate area.

"If I was in this area, I'd have every incentive to get out as a business person," Tunney said. "We're encouraging people to consider moving. ... This should be renamed a business park."

Patrick Heneghan, owner of Heneghan Wrecking, testified he was already looking to sell his property at 1321 W. Concord Place and relocate.

"The land rush is on in this area," Smith said, who later added that she fully expected constituents to hold Hopkins to his guarantees.

It's the first of the city's 26 industrial corridors to have its development guidelines updated in a citywide initiative announced last year by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.