15 mar 18 | Chicago Tribune
Group envisions 24-acre riverfront park as North Side prepares for flood of towers
by Ryan Ori
An anticipated burst of real estate development along the Chicago River also will include a 24-acre public park, if a coalition including two North Side aldermen gets its way.
The group, called the North Branch Park Preserve, is pushing to have Mayor Rahm Emanuel back its effort to create the park on mostly industrial land along the east side of the river between North Avenue and Cortland Street.
The group, including Aldermen Michele Smith, 43rd, and Scott Waguespack, 32nd, on Wednesday described its efforts to the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.
North Branch Park Preserve, which also includes architects and several neighborhood and conservation groups, told the editorial board that the city must act soon to seize the opportunity to carve out a large park, before land in the corridor is filled in with billions of dollars worth of new towers.
“The reality is that the development world is at the doorstep right now, and this is going to change forever, within the next 10 years,” said Richard Wilson, city design director at Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill Architecture, which created a preliminary plan for the park on behalf of the coalition. Wilson emphasized the “opportunity to do something worthy of Chicago if we act.”
The city last year approved zoning changes in a 760-acre stretch along the river that for generations has been dominated by industrial uses. New land use rules are expected to throw open the doors to about 18 million square feet of high-rises, with uses including residential and office space near the proposed park, Wilson estimated.
Including projects planned south of the Loop, the city could add 150,000 new residents along the North and South branches of the river over the next decade, Wilson said.
The coalition argues that, without careful city planning, the already densely populated North Side neighborhoods along the river will be dramatically underserved with park space as manufacturing properties are redeveloped.
“I’ve shown this plan to the mayor, and he has said he’s intrigued,” Smith said. “He hasn’t said no.”
Yet the mayor’s office, in a statement to the Tribune, said a framework plan for the area that came out of more than two dozen community meetings held by 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins already outlines 60 acres of open space. “The aldermen’s proposal is at odds with the outcome of that process,” the statement said.
“Mayor Emanuel and the Department of Planning and Development agree that substantial public open space is essential to the North Branch's coordinated transition to a dynamic, mixed-use business environment that is reshaping urban waterfronts across the country,” the statement added.
Initial plans call for the park to include sports fields, nature preserve, riverfront walking and biking trails, playgrounds and open land, among other uses.
The proposed 24-acre park would be along the southeast edge of the largest plan to emerge in the 3.7-mile-long former industrial corridor: Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards project. The Chicago developer plans to invest as much as $10 billion building residential and office towers, a 20,000-seat sports and entertainment stadium with a retractable roof and other buildings.
Lincoln Yards is one of 10 Chicago-area sites proposed for HQ2, Amazon’s planned second headquarters.
It’s unclear exactly how much it would cost the city to create the park, or how the city would fund it.
Wilson estimated it would cost about $40 million to cap over environmentally contaminated land and build the park.
That doesn’t include the cost to buy the 24 acres of land, whose owners include General Iron Industries, ComEd and Peoples Gas. By comparison, Sterling Bay bought a similar-sized parcel of vacant land, the former A. Finkl & Sons steel plant, for $140 million.
The coalition said the land proposed for the park could be worth significantly less because it would require extensive environmental remediation to be redeveloped commercially.
Sterling Bay has an option to buy another riverfront property that now houses an office of C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Smith said. The logistics firm plans to move to a new building Sterling Bay is constructing at the north edge of Lincoln Yards.
Smith and Waguespack said the city could tap several funding sources, including new city zoning fees, tax increment financing and private donations, to buy the land. The city also could negotiate a land transfer from Sterling Bay in exchange for allowing increased density on the Lincoln Yards project along the east and west sides of the river, the aldermen said.
“We would be thrilled to help support the city’s efforts to develop additional public open space and amenities along the Chicago River,” Sterling Bay Managing Principal Andy Gloor said in an emailed statement. “If the city acquired additional land along the east side of the river to further expand our proposed green belt, Sterling Bay would be wholly supportive."
Cooperation of the mayor and city agencies would be needed to bring the park to fruition.
Hopkins, whose ward includes the proposed park, has been asked to join the coalition but hasn’t done so, Wilson said.
Hopkins said he hasn’t seen the plans, but added that he’s “willing to continue the effort to maximize the amount of park space we can get.”
“We need more park space for the entire area, and if the aldermen are able to bring more of it to the 32nd and 43rd wards, I’d support them bringing that to the table as well,” Hopkins said.
Pedestrian bridges would help link the park to public transportation in the area, Wilson said. The city also must address traffic congestion in the area, which likely will require new bridges and other infrastructure.
“I think very soon we’re going to hear of infrastructure needs in the $500 million range,” Wilson said. “Nobody has said that yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Members of the coalition said a 24-acre riverfront park would — like other complex and costly undertakings including Millennium Park, The 606 elevated trail and ongoing development of the downtown riverwalk — pay off for decades to come.
“These are 100-year decisions,” Waguespack said. “Every one of these developments that we’re looking at is coming in fast and furious. We’re trying to think 100 years ahead and what the impact is going to be on our neighborhood organizations and on the river.”