The Future of the Randolph-Fulton Market District Not Written in Stone

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What should the Randolph-Fulton Market District look like a few years from now, and beyond? That’s the big question for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. The D.P.D. developed an impressive historic documentation about the district and others like it in Chicago and around the country. That was part of a master plan we reported on when it was unveiled April 1st to an overflow crowd at Venue One.

Fulton Market-1A follow-up open house where the D.P.D. provided a update to the work-in-progress plan was held last week at the Union Park Fieldhouse. D.P.D. officials were on hand to address questions and comments from the community.

It was a more casual setting than the April meeting. During the question and answer session that night, a number of residents vented about the issue that often vexes West Loop residents: the prospect of skyscrapers. In the West Loop, anything higher than nine stories causes stress. This warm spring night in Union Park, 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr., was on hand to schmooze with constituents. He didn’t have to play peacemaker/referee (as I’ve witnessed at a number of community meetings where developers and residents clashed about the height of new residential towers).

Fulton Market-5The Randolph-Fulton Market District is not exactly like other parts of the West Loop, where the craft beer-swigging, Hunter boot-stomping and North Face jacket-wearing young urban professionals have settled in nicely. Randolph-Fulton Market is a strange amalgam. At this point, West Randolph is a restaurant mecca, Lake Street is a mix of small and large businesses with a gallery and a few more restaurants thrown in.

Fulton Market-6Fulton Market is one of the weirdest streets in the neighborhood. Walking west from Halsted, you begin with a bustling fish market (J. Isaacson and Sons) across the street from an outlet of the designer donut shop Glazed and Infused. Keep walking west past The Publican and for several blocks all you’ll see is the same type of food processing plants that have called this area of the city home for a century. Fulton Market being the crazy street it is, you then reach Moto and Next, two of the most exclusive and expensive restaurants on planet earth. Another couple of blocks to the west and you reach 1K Fulton, or as some residents have taken to calling it, “the Google building.” Another block or two and you’re back to meatpacking. And so it goes on Fulton Market.

Fulton Market-2So, why does the D.P.D. have its sights set on the area? Precisely because of the food processing and meatpacking industries that are still evident. The planners believe that historical presence should be preserved. Chicago was, after all, as penned by Carl Sandburg, the “hog butcher for the world.”

The West Loop’s popularity continues to grow, as developers look into every nook and cranny of the area for opportunities to monetize. Given that backdrop, it makes sense that the D.P.D. feels it prudent to exercise some controls to make sure nothing too outlandish occurrs. Then again, the organic funky nature of Randolph-Market has its own bizarre charm. For example, the building just off Randolph that inexplicably has a bunch of horse sculptures on the roof.

Fulton Market-7The West Central Association, a West Loop-based organization representing businesses and residents, supports any improvements that will enhance the community, but the group didn’t exactly endorse the D.P.D.’s plan for Randolph-Fulton Market.

In an April 8th letter to Alderman Burnett, the W.C.A. said the D.P.D.’s plan failed to position the district for economic growth. It recommended the plan be modified, and suggested:

An emphasis on the importance of Fulton and Randolph Streets as major commercial corridors, and a de-emphasis on Lake Street, which is best used as a service street.

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The D.P.D.’s plan included a re-zoning of West Lake Street to allow for a high-rise residential tower. At the April 1st meeting, that idea was not warmly received by residents. The W.C.A. told the city planners it ought to leave the oft-clogged Lake Street as-is. The WCA isn’t totally opposed to higher-density zoning, but wants it to be done where it made sense, continuing:

Encourage transit-oriented development by permitting higher density, not on Lake Street, which lacks the infrastructure to support it, but within the plan area, most of which is within a 1,200-foot radius of the Morgan Street CTA Station.

The W.C.A. also recommended the city use TIF funds to make infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood (e.g., ancient sewers and crumbling sidewalks).

Fulton Market-8The D.P.D.’s revised plan includes a gateway to the district, at Halsted and Fulton Market, to define the entrance to the area. The plan also goes on at some length about building heights, setbacks, signage, restoration and windows. It calls for, in broad strokes, the following actions:

  • Designate a historic district within a portion of the Fulton Market Innovation District
  • Adopt design guidelines.
  • Adopt the Fulton Market Innovation District Land Use Map to minimize further land use conflicts and maximize the production of real and virtual products.
  • Coordinate public infrastructure investments to create a cohesive district identity and support ongoing private investment projects.
  • Provide food-related programming and events emphasizing Chicago’s role within the regional and nationwide food systems.

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Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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