Maybe a river runs through it, but the massive proposal for Lincoln Yards mixed-use project is misconceived and light years away from Chicago’s glittering high-rise neighborhoods along the Chicago River’s downtown path.
The far western section of the Lincoln Park neighborhood is comprised mostly of architecturally significant Victorian low-rise residential and commercial buildings that are miles away from Lake Michigan, the Outer Drive and the booming River North, Loop and South Loop commercial and entertainment districts.
As Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune architecture critic, so eloquently wrote: “The fundamental problem with the $5-billion-plus plan, which would transform more than 50 acres of former industrial land along the Chicago River into a collection of offices, apartments and shops, remains its overwhelming bigness, exemplified by a swath of proposed skyscrapers that would loom over the delicately scaled, nearby neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Bucktown.”
Simply put, Lincoln Yard’s developers are trying to shovel 10 pounds of real estate into a five-pound bag.
Kamin also noted that many of Lincoln Yards’ glass and steel high-rises proposed by developer Sterling Bay are planned to rise to heights taller than the skyscrapers that currently line Lakeview Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan and the vast open green spaces of Lincoln Park.
Sterling Bay’s goliath plans called for bringing 5,000 new households to Lincoln Yards, 23,000 new jobs and 12 million square feet of residential, retail, hotel and office space to the area. Some high-rises are slated to be 650 feet tall.
Along with a sweeping zoning change, Kamin noted that the developer also is requesting $800 million in controversial tax-increment financing to back construction of new roads, bridges, and other infrastructure—without which much of its land would remain isolated and far less valuable.
Now based in Chicago, Sterling Bay has developed many office and apartment projects here, and also has projects in Portland and Miami. It’s a big supporter of charities and fund-raisers and seems to be pretty tight with local politicians.
Chicago River’s sooty history
If you turn back the clock to the 1950s, this writer—a long-time Old Town resident—remembers playing as a child in the sooty coal yard that sat on the east banks of the Chicago River at North Avenue.
Later, the coal yard was replaced by an even more depressing junk yard and the dirty industrial strip remained an eye sore for decades. Besides a few blue-collar saloons, the only entertainment in the district came from the hookers who worked North Avenue near the river.
Despite Finkl Steel’s mammoth efforts in the 1990s to landscape and beautify the section of Armitage Avenue in this arm-pit neighborhood, its furnaces belched smoke and the contaminated river continued to be a disgusting sewer.
By car, Armitage Avenue was utilized as a short cut to the Kennedy Expressway or Bucktown. The only reason Lincoln Parkers ever stopped along this strip of Armitage was to visit a dive that sold great fried shrimp and fish on the west bank of the river. That place closed several years ago.
After all, the district along the river was zoned for industry, and with that zoning came all the environmental problems listed above, not to mention possible land contamination.
However, rapid development in and on the southern border of Old Town, where mid-rise apartments now are sprouting on North Avenue, and in Lincoln Park, where new residential and commercial development is booming, has created immense rush hour traffic jams on both arterial streets and side streets.
Not long ago, this writer was traveling to his Old Town property and was held hostage by gridlock on Sheffield near Webster for a half hour or more during a rain storm while drivers waited to inch across side streets within a block or two of the proposed Lincoln Yards site.
Apparently, part of the gridlock was caused by soccer and Little League moms driving SUVs down Webster Avenue to drop children to practices at Trebes Park and Oz Park.
In a moment of clarity, Ald. Brian Hopkins recently rejected two segments of the Sterling Bay proposal—a planned soccer stadium and an entertainment district. However, Ald. Hopkins also prematurely put the Lincoln Yards project on the January 24th Chicago Plan Commission agenda without additional public hearings.
Apparently, what most West Lincoln Park and Bucktown residents want is more public parkland along the river, not another Navy Pier entertainment district.
Lincoln Yards alternatives
What would make the most sense at Lincoln Yards? Lots of new park acreage with bike trails and parking bordered by low-rise residential development patterned after the 2-flat and 3-flat housing stock of Old Town, Lincoln Park and Bucktown.
If Sterling Bay wants to build skyscrapers, soccer stadiums and an entertainment district there is plenty of open space and available vacant land in less congested neighborhoods along the South Branch of the Chicago River and along the South Side lakefront, south of McCormick Place.
Or, perhaps there are better alternatives in Miami or Portland.
For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.