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Lincoln Yards, set to reshape former industrial district on the north branch of the Chicago River and bring high-rises to a landscape of warehouses and two- to three-story flats, fits likes a puzzle piece into the city map.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

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Can megadevelopments serve the whole city?

Chicago’s Lincoln Yards, a $6 billion plan to revitalize an old industrial district, raises question about who benefits from such big projects

Chicago’s many nicknames, from the City of Big Shoulders to the City That Works, riff on its reputation as a gritty, hard-working, and down-to-earth alternative to coastal cities.

But the nickname that best characterizes life in Chicago may be the City of Neighborhoods, which reflects its array of diverse, distinct, and close-knit communities.

That sentiment may explain why Lincoln Yards, a new mixed-use mega-development set to reshape a wide swath of the city’s near north side, has angered so many Chicagoans. Estimating total costs to be $6 billion, the proposal, which recently passed an important vote in the Planning Commission after being re-calibrated to reflect community concerns, will ask the city council to approve $900 million in public funding in early March.

Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune architecture critic who shot down earlier versions of the plan, still says the latest version is rife with negative consequences—“snarled streets, bland street facades, and concealed park space”—while three of the city’s largest papers, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Crain’s Chicago Business, have all proposed braking or halting the city approval process. “Anyone have a crowbar we can shove into the conveyor belt’s gears?” the Tribune editorial board said of what they called a rushed process.

Lincoln Yards has also led to complaints among the city’s music venues and creative community, since the project would surround the Hideout, a beloved bar and club, and, in an earlier iteration, included new performance venues that were to be run by Live Nation, the concert promoter.

“This isn’t a city within a city; it’s suburb within a city,” says Robert Gomez, owner of the Subterranean, a music club in Wicker Park. “It looks like they took Schaumburg and plopped it in the middle of the Chicago.”

The proposal, and requests for public funding, raise fundamental questions about Chicago’s direction, which could be applied to any U.S. city contemplating large-scale re-development. Can we create working neighborhoods out of whole cloth? Should the public help fund their construction? And, more importantly, can these neighborhoods work for everyone?

“Most people who live and love Chicago celebrate [its] neighborhoods,” says DePaul professor Winifred Curran, who studies sustainable urban development and gentrification. “Lincoln Yards feels homogenizing. It’s not the Chicago people know and love. We’re being asked to put a lot of money into a development that’s not servicing the city as a whole.”

Lincoln Yards is still being promoted as an economic magnet, the kind of mixed-use, walkable, tech-friendly district where business and city tax revenues blossom and the next Amazon could arise.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

The economic symbolism of Lincoln Yards

The brainchild of Sterling Bay, a local mega-developer known for transformative projects, including recasting a cold storage warehouse as a Google office, this “city within a city” was master-planned by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), with landscape architecture by James Corner Field Operations, best known for New York’s High Line.

Once spoken of as a possible Amazon HQ2 location, Lincoln Yards is still being promoted as an economic magnet, the kind of mixed-use, walkable, tech-friendly district where business and city tax revenues blossom and the next Amazon could arise. Amid new “character zones,” designed to create more street-level personality among the towers and offices, 23,000 permanent jobs are eventually expected to take root, according to a Sterling Bay spokesperson, and become a “vital economic engine and job creation center.”

Lincoln Yards, set to reshape the former industrial district on the north branch of the Chicago River and bring high-rises to a landscape of warehouses and two- to three-story flats, fits likes a puzzle piece into the city map. Conveniently located near many of the city’s most expensive residential neighborhoods, the 52-acre project would place high-end residential towers, luxury office space, and a network of parks, trails, and 21 acres of riverfront space at a confluence of Lincoln Park, Bucktown, and Old Town. The newest plans include an extension of the city’s 606 bike path and water taxi stops, as well as a relocation and upgrade of the nearby Clybourn Metra station, which would turn the station into a larger, multimodal transit hub.

This development presents a real opportunity to connect and improve the city’s transportation network, says Jim Merrell, advocacy director of the Active Transportation Alliance, not just create a space for cafes and wine bars.

Like New York’s Hudson Yards, a vast repurposing of 20th-century Manhattan rail yards for 21st-century commercial and residential real estate, Lincoln Yards trades on the symbolism of using the infrastructure of the industrial economy to house the tech- and service-based businesses of the future. It’s a common trope, found littered throughout city proposals for Amazon’s new headquarters.

“The reality is, Chicago is shrinking,” says Josh Ellis, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a regional planning group. “Downtown and a few other neighborhoods are growing, but others are shrinking. These large projects, in general, are geared toward stemming the tide of loss, and bringing resources back to the city.”

Despite, or maybe because of, its potential to alter the landscape, Lincoln Yards has been designed to reflect the area’s past. Industrial touches, like truss bridges and repurposed steel from the defunct A. Finkl Steel mill, are meant to show this isn’t being treated as tabula rasa by designers, but as an evolution of an area with important history.

It’s a powerful merger of story and symbolism. But based on the performance of the former industrial district, known as a Planned Manufacturing District, as well as concerns about rising prices, displacement, and density, many housing advocates and community leaders question the rush to break ground.

Does the economy need to double down on technology?

One of the fundamental hopes backers have for Lincoln Yards is that the area will be a new economic hub—and that transforming a riverfront industrial district into a sort of tech village will bring new jobs and development.

But the history of the area not only suggests that many of those changes were already taking place, but that this former industrial site was more successful than many assume.

The proposed boundaries for Lincoln Yards sit atop the city’s first planned manufacturing district (PMD), a zoning designation created in the late ’80s to help save and salvage the city’s manufacturing workforce. By prohibiting residential and most retail use, the idea went, the zoning tweak could keep factories and warehouses in town. DePaul’s Curran says the concept was “wildly successful” and became a national model.

As of a few years ago, the North Branch Corridor was doing just that, according to Michael Holzer, president of the community development group North Branch Works. He told Curbed in 2016 that the area had a 90 percent occupancy rate, with breweries and distilleries clamoring for this type of space. The area’s most famous tenant, A. Finkl & Sons steel mill, didn’t close down; the growing business needed to expand and relocated, on its own timeline, to a bigger facility on the city’s South Side. C.H. Robinson, a large logistics provider, broke ground on a new headquarters in the district last year.

”The PMD has worked, and has helped maintain businesses,” Holzer said in 2016. “There [are] about 10,000 jobs and 400 businesses in the North Branch Corridor, with an average wage of $70,000. We call these ‘head-of-household jobs.’”

It’s true, however, that traditional manufacturing employment has shrunk significantly over time. According to government job numbers provided by Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, manufacturing land use in this PMD decreased from 73 to 20 percent between 1990 and 2016, while employment in manufacturing declined by more than half between 1988 and 2002, and decreased a further 41 percent between 2002 and 2014.

But the same data shows that from 2002 to 2014, the PMD saw business services jobs increase by 577 percent, and IT & Management sector employment jump 261 percent. Even more encouraging, the area covered by the PMD also saw significant growth in tech jobs before any rezoning or redevelopment, according to city research. UI Labs, a $320 million digital design and manufacturing hub, opened on nearby Goose Island in 2015 to help make Chicago an “epicenter for advanced manufacturing.” And other office space and incubation hubs, such as Lost Arts, have set up shop over the last few years.

That isn’t to say that a redevelopment on the scale of Lincoln Yards wouldn’t kick-start what’s already happening organically, and bring even more entrepreneurs and start-ups to the neighborhood. Years of public meetings and numerous studies have addressed the question of how this area should evolve. But it does call into question the perceived rush to both rezone and provide hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for a private development, all in an area that seems to be growing at its own pace.

Who benefits from the new Chicago?

If Lincoln Yards lives up to its potential—both in terms of job creation and facilitating a more walkable, integrated transit network—will it also live up to the promise of working for all Chicagoans? Local politicians and community leaders who oppose the plan point to the affordable housing plans for the project as evidence that it won’t.

According to the most recent proposal, Sterling Bay is asking for the creation of a $900 million TIF, or tax-increment finance district, that would redirect property taxes to pay for infrastructure upgrades to support the mega-development.

The company says it’s a needed investment to transform an underutilized part of the city. In addition, $100 million in industrial corridor bonuses and fees paid by Sterling Bay will support other Chicago PMDs.

“The roads and transit infrastructure in the area are a hinderance to thousands of residents who travel in and around the area daily,” says a Sterling Bay spokesperson. “The TIF will support much-needed and long-overdue infrastructure improvements and untangle the grid as well as provide for new roadways and bridges.”

A number of housing advocates and city aldermen have argued that calling this area “blighted,” as is required for TIF designation, is ridiculous, and that Lincoln Yards doesn’t go nearly far enough in providing on-site affordable housing, which would provide a better link between housing, jobs, and opportunity.

Alderman Ameya Pawar, part of a 10-alderman minority that opposes the Lincoln Yards TIF, says he doesn’t have an issue with density or paying incentives. But he feels the incentive should go toward more affordable housing.

By asking for the TIF, the proposal triggers affordable housing requirements. In this case, according to the most recent proposal, that would mean 1,200 of the 6,000 units would need to be affordable. Sterling Bay has said it will meet the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) and build 300 of those units on-site, and will pay into the city’s affordable housing fund, as well as fines and fees, to support the other 900 units, which fulfills the city’s requirements.

“Segregating affordable housing from these developments encourages segregation,” says Pawar. “They say it’s not paying the city back with the city’s money. Bullshit. I can make a spreadsheet saying what I want to, too.”

Kevin Jackson, executive director of Rehab Chicago, a coalition of affordable housing groups, said that while developments like Lincoln Yards provide jobs and opportunity, the real question is how they help workers in the city’s traditionally underinvested south and west sides.

Setting the precedent for mega-developments to come

Lincoln Yards is far from the only large-scale redevelopment project taking place in Chicago right now, even as political corruption scandals affecting two powerful aldermen, Ed Burke and Danny Solis, rock city politics. Another big riverfront parcel pursued by developers at Related Midwest, called the 78, is moving forward, and many observers expect the Michael Reese Hospital complex in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood to also start taking shape. In many ways, Lincoln Yards will become a precedent.

“I think Lincoln Yards and the 78 should be rebooted,” says Pawar. “These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to build mixed-income communities, and get lots of affordable housing on-site, and start chipping away on the city’s legacy of segregation.”

Everyone agrees that area encompassed by Lincoln Yards has incredible potential, and that the project could be a catalyst, changing the city and its economy for the better. How the city funds these types of developments going forward, and how Chicago and other cities decide to develop their economies, hits at the intersection of inequality and opportunity that is often so stubbornly entrenched.

“Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest example of what happens in the city, but that industrial area had actual value,” says Curran. “We need to think about things that build capacity for people who live in the city now, and build on the strengths of people who are already here—not attract some elite cosmopolitan class.”

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