Ever since the City of Chicago released the framework for redeveloping the North Branch Industrial Corridor into a new bustling neighborhood of tech firms, trendy restaurants, and glittering high rises, people who actually live in and near the area have worried that an opportunity is being missed. An opportunity to create new parks for the people who will actually live there.
The city’s redevelopment plan was shown at 18 community meetings over 400 days in 2016. But then went from introduction, through City Hall’s entire bureaucratic approval process, and into the books in just ten days. The taxpaying, politician-electing public barely had a chance skim their copies of the 126-page document before it was all set in stone.
The city has stated that no new public parks are needed in the 760 acre redevelopment zone, while at the same time gloating that the zone is expected to bring in an additional 50,000 residents, a 20,000-seat stadium, and several tens of thousands of new workers.
Instead, the city believes that semi-privately owned “open space” is just as good, pointing to 60 acres marked out in the framework for just such breathing room. But the devil is in the details, as they say. According to 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith:
- 42% of that open space is concrete sidewalks and bicycle paths.
- 28% of that open space is underwater.
- 17% of that open space is in so-called “non-contiguous areas.”
What’s a “non-contiguous area?” Well, it’s the little flowerbeds and diminutive plazas and decorative mini lawns that the city imagines real estate developers will put in to adorn the space surrounding their skyscrapers.
Imagine trying to take the dog for a walk in the concrete planters in front of Aon Center. Or throw a Frisbee down the Gateway median on State Street. Or spread out a blanket for a picnic on the concrete expanse behind Prudential Plaza. It’s something like that.
Considering that Chicago companies already have a tarnished reputation for keeping official public space open to the public (*cough*Boeing*cough), you can imaging how people who live nearby have visions of Mayor Rahm Emanuel twirling a cartoon mustache and cackling.
After months of deaf ears at 121 North LaSalle Street, the concerned parties did what aggrieved people have done for generations: They took their complaints to the newspapers.
Last week representatives of what is called the North Branch Park Preserve sat down with the editorial boards of the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune to explain why they’re worried. Instead of a wall of skyscrapers lining the river, they’d like to see at least part of the river lined with a big public park.
They even brought along renderings of what real “open space” looks like — a public park imagined by local starchitect firm AS+GG. It’s 24 acres big and runs down the east side of the Chicago River’s north branch from Cortland Street five blocks to North Avenue. For political punch, the presenters included the previously mentioned Alderman Smith, and 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack.
“Chicago already has too many parks, too much clean air, and too much public space,” said nobody ever. Twenty-four acres of parkland is just over three percent of the redevelopment zone.
It’s a noble effort, but short of a massive lawsuit and a sympathetic judge, in our opinion it is doomed. It’s been our observation that what Hizzonor wants, Hizzonor gets. And it’s a fact of life that unless you screw up the trains in a major snowstorm, incumbent mayors in Chicago don’t have to worry about pissing off Joe and Jane Votestuffer. To make matters worse, Mr. Emanuel isn’t exactly a good steward of the city’s existing parks (*cough*Obama Center*cough*).
So at this point it’s up to history to determine if people 50 years from now will look back on this as the shining urban revitalization the mayor’s office is selling, or Cabrini Green 2.0.