Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed a couple dozen community meetings in the West Loop where developers and architects offered up plans for new buildings and then held their collective breath while residents gave their feedback. Sometimes, that part of the meeting wasn’t pretty.
The most common complaints: “We’ll lose our view.” “Traffic will get worse.” “The density is already too high.” “We’ll lose our neighborhood feel.”
You see, residents of the West Loop are a protective lot. They fret that development is moving too quickly. But growth is inevitable in a popular neighborhood. Consider that:
- Restaurant Row is thriving on West Randolph as a new hip eatery seems to open each month.
- The soon-to-be-finished 1K Fulton will open in 2015 which will bring 500 Google employees and about 2,000 other tenants to the Randolph-Fulton Market District.
- Arkadia Tower, the newest high-rise on South Halsted, is nearly complete and taking applications for renters.
- The Chicago Children’s Theatre recently received $5 million in state funding to help the theatre company move into the unused 12th District Police Station at 100 South Racine.
For a bit of perspective, I chatted with Armando Chacon, president of West Central Association Chamber of Commerce, to get a feel for whether the West Loop is developing too fast, whether it’s on the right track, and what he feels are the most pressing needs for the neighborhood.
Chacon is a West Loop resident and has a bit more history with the area than most. As a child, he saw the area not as a haven for young urban professionals but a raw and gritty area with little hope of being more than a hub of meatpacking and food processing.
“My dad worked there for more than three decades on Fulton and Sangamon,” Chacon said. “I never thought I’d live three blocks from where he used to work. I remember how different it used to be. I remember going with him and seeing cows’ corpses. It’s exciting what’s going on over there on Fulton Market. I love where I live.”
I asked Chacon if development in the West Loop is moving in the right direction.
“I’d say we are,” he said. “We’re in a pretty good spot. It’s one of the best places to live in the country but there’s room for growth to make the neighborhood better. We have to adjust and think about how we develop going forward. We’ve had all this development in the last couple of years and now we have two camps: some want the neighborhood to continue to grow and some that don’t want any more development.”
What does growth mean? “It means more conveniences, more retail, another deli, another café, another clothing store, and more restaurants. So the two groups at times can be in conflict, and meanwhile, there are market forces. Because of the demand to live here, people want to move their businesses here.” The challenge, he said, is to manage growth in a collaborative and sensible way and try to make everybody happy. It’s not always an easy task. In fact, Chacon is working to bring together residents and developers who are at odds. It may not be as difficult as bringing peace to the Middle East but there are still challenges.
Take for instance the proposed 13-story apartment building LG Development wants to build at 111 S. Peoria just east of Mary Bartelme Park. The sleek glass structure is certainly striking. But it has raised the ire of residents around the park and has drawn objections from the West Loop Residents Association and Neighbors of the West Loop. Neighbors are concerned about the design, height, and the prospect of renters. The community groups have made their concerns known to Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr., and the developer. Could there be a compromise or middle-ground for discussion? Chacon thinks so.
“I’ve been trying to get a meeting between the true stakeholders, not a meeting with the alderman, not a community meeting or a meeting with the attorneys, just a meeting with the developer and the residents who live just next to the site,” he said. “We get to these community meetings and it becomes a free-for-all.”
Chacon’s idea: “Let’s have a private conversation without a zoning attorney, and let’s just talk about what the issues are.”
Such is the fine diplomatic line a pro-business West Loop resident must walk. What does the West Loop need most, I asked Chacon.
“We do need more conveniences, we want a more walk-able neighborhood. To achieve this, we need more people, and I think these rental apartment buildings will achieve that. I would strongly disagree with the idea that we’re too dense now. I don’t want the area to be too dense, but I think we’re a long way away from that. I would like to see a wide range of housing which is growing on the rental/smaller side, but still under-supplied on the larger end of the spectrum. I expect more development of larger condos, townhomes, and single family homes. Unfortunately, not quickly enough to meet the growing demand. It’s a real problem.”
I asked Chacon about the proposal by one West Loop community group to declare a moratorium on all new development.
“As I said, some people don’t want any new building but it’s not realistic,” he said. “Chicago neighborhoods are either getting better or getting worse and I’d rather be in neighborhood that’s getting better. That’s why you have to talk. At the West Central Association, we’re going to lead on this. We’ve supported some projects where there might have been a perception that there wasn’t community support. For example, we supported the Arkadia Tower and encouraged a compromise for the new building at Madison and Green, both of which received majority support at their respective community meetings.”
“I say the vast majority of the community does want further growth. And to bring it to a halt…that’s not going to happen. I’m trying to get to a point where we can continue this train. The speed of the train may be a little slower but we’ve got to keep it going.”