DEPAUL — About three dozen local residents welcomed the city sale of the Fleet Management lot to Sterling Bay at a community meeting Thursday, especially after the host alderman said he'd received a written pledge from the developer to fulfill a commitment to set aside parkland.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) told a public meeting at the DePaul University Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield Ave., that he was committed to "the most inclusive and transparent process on a real-estate transaction" after postponing a vote on the matter earlier this week at a Housing Committee meeting.
Hopkins compared it to the city's infamous parking-meter deal, in that the $106 million sale of two city lots — 18 acres at 1685 N. Throop St. and another five at 69th Street and Wentworth Avenue in Englewood — went before the committee with little advance notice.
"This had the potential to go in the same direction," he said. "You could argue it wasn't even on the agenda at all.
"I'm told that was a typo," he added, to muffled laughter from the audience. "We had to stop that train," Hopkins said. "There was no way that could proceed."
But residents liked what they heard after that from a panel of city officials and the firm that handled the pending sale, to the point where they even applauded at the end of the hour-plus meeting.
"We marketed the property throughout the globe," said Dirk Riekse of the Cushman & Wakefield firm that handled the sale. In the end, he said, the city received two serious offers: $90 million from Sterling Bay and $100 million from the Onni Group, but that was contingent on zoning changes. Negotiations talked the prices up to $104.7 million and $115 million, but with the higher Onni offer still contingent on zoning and with a possible closing in 1 year and 5 months.
Larry Goldwasser of Cushman & Wakefield said his firm advised taking the Sterling Bay deal as "an above-market offer and able to close within the year."
Riekse added the developer agreed to "eat the cost of the demolition" of the city garages on the 18-acre property as part of the deal.
Chip Hastings, deputy commissioner with the Department of Planning and Development, agreed, saying, "It was an all-cash deal closing when we wanted to close," in mid-December.
Philip Edison, of the Bucktown Community Organization, agreed with that thinking, saying with Sterling Bay's extensive holdings in the area — including the Finkl Steel site envisioned as part of the Lincoln Yards development that would include the Fleet Management lot — it was more likely to be able to set aside land for a major park, an issue he called "critical" to the community.
Hopkins explained Sterling Bay's absence from the meeting by saying "it could send the wrong message" that it was "a done deal," adding, "It's not a done deal."
But he brandished a letter from the firm he said promised to fulfill a commitment to 10 acres of recreational space "110 percent."
"Sterling Bay has paid close attention to the process so far," Hopkins said. He called the developer "acutely aware" of the community's demand for a major public park.
While emphasizing these were just "proposals," not fully fleshed-out plans, Hopkins pointed to a rendering showing a soccer field on the Fleet Management lot and an extension of Southport Avenue via a north-south bridge to be built across the Chicago River — which drew nods from residents who complained about traffic congestion during the meeting.
Ted Wrobleski, of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, called that a "creative solution," although he also wondered aloud if the city wouldn't be better off to hold on to the property in an attempt to sell it directly to Amazon as a possible site for its second headquarters, which has basically been thrown open to a nationwide bidding process.
Hastings said it was better to put the property in the hands of a developer to lure Amazon to the site, but Retha Kay, president of the RANCH Triangle Association, scoffed at that.
"I don't understand how the city can have a Department of Planning and Development and say we can't develop," Kay said.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who attended the meeting but did not address it, lamented how few people showed up, blaming the short notice, as it was scheduled after Monday's Housing Committee meeting (and on the night of a Bears-Packers football game).
"It's unclear to me what the purpose of the meeting was," she said. Smith added that, given the 300,000 residents in the area and the thousands more to come in mixed-use developments, perhaps including Lincoln Yards, "even 10 acres is very insufficient" for a new public park.
"This is the future of the North Side here," Smith said. "We'll see what kind of a yard there is in Lincoln Yards."
Otherwise, though, residents generally welcomed the Sterling Bay deal. Goldwasser and Riekse added the complete deal included $104.7 million for the Fleet Management lot and another $1.3 million for another five-acre lot at 69th and Wentworth, adjacent to the proposed site of the new Fleet Management lot in Englewood. Both those lots are owned by City Colleges.
Hastings said the city hopes Sterling Bay will create a commercial development there to complement the increased traffic and activity brought to the area by the Fleet Management lot.
"There's been progress," Hopkins said. "We're clearly not where we want to be yet ... but the negotiations continue, and let's see what more we can get for the community." He said he expected Sterling Bay to be present at the next public meeting on the matter after the city sale is more settled.
Wrobleski said he'd recently met Mayor Rahm Emanuel on a CTA Brown Line train and had confronted him about the need for a major park along the North Branch Industrial Corridor. According to Wrobleski, the mayor responded, "Don't worry, you'll get your park."