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Urban Planning Tue Jun 15 2010
Op-Ed Contributed by GB Contributing Writer Bob Quellos
Last week, the Chicago City Council approved a $96 million TIF for the South Works development site, the largest ever given to a private developer in the City of Chicago. The plan for South Works calls for the eventual building of over 17,000 dwelling units on the 500-acre site at the location of the former U.S. Steel South Works, near 79th Street and east of U.S. 41. The project is to be run by a development group that includes the Chicago-based McCaffery Interests. The first phase of construction is scheduled for groundbreaking in 2012; located on a 77 acre portion of the site, it will compromise an astounding million square feet of retail space alongside residential dwellings. Decades from now if the project eventually is completed, it will create an entirely new neighborhood along Lake Michigan on Chicago's South Side.
But if you had $96 million dollars to invest in the City of Chicago what would you do with it? Would you build the infrastructure for a new neighborhood, or perhaps take a shot at filling the ongoing budget hole that is wrecking havoc on the Chicago Public School system. Perhaps you would find a way to put the over 1,100 employees at the CTA who were recently laid off back to work and restore transit services that were axed. Or maybe (hold on to your seat, this is a crazy one), reeling with disgust from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico you decide to make a ground breaking attempt to move Chicago away from a dependance on non-renewable resources and invest the $96 million dollars in wind power that would provide free and clean energy to some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.
Perhaps the last thing you would do with this money is fund the infrastructure required for an entire new neighborhood in Chicago. Of course you wouldn't do this. At least not while Chicago is flush with unsold housing units, and only a few zip codes to the west of the proposed development nearly 1 in 16 homes are in foreclosure. Meanwhile in the city as a whole, 1 in every 261 housing units received a foreclosure notice in the month of April 2010. And forget the hole in the ground left by what was to be the Chicago Spire -- add to the foreclosure figures the unknown number of stalled residential units that litter the city. Consider the story run on Eight Forty-Eight a number of months back that focuses on a North Side development that today is nothing more than a masonry shell. As Alison Cuddy reported, "Empty lots and half-finished buildings across the city sit idle while people wait for loans to come through. The financial bottleneck has created a mess of incomplete projects and lines of unemployed construction workers. And now the city that witnessed one of the country's biggest real estate booms is trying to figure out what to do with the land."
And you surely wouldn't fund the infrastructure of an entire new neighborhood for a developer while Crain's Chicago Business is warning that, "The ranks of bankrupt developers are expected to swell in 2010, as more loans come due and lenders shift their attention from foreclosing on troubled properties to collecting multimillion-dollar loan guarantees made by developers when the market was booming." And then factor in that the projects developer, McCaffery Interests, just recently lost a Myrtle Beach development to foreclosure (which also happened to receive TIF funding) and you would conclude this all seems like a bad idea, right?
Well, not if you're Mayor Daley and the Chicago City Council. And if you are the Mayor or one of the city's alderman why not go forward with the TIF? For starters, the South Works site isn't the parking meter deal; meaning, its location puts it out of sight and out of mind. It's unoccupied and inaccessible, so you can't even be angry at the yet-to-be installed Pay Boxes. But secondly, and more importantly, the South Works project is in essence City Hall's plan for Chicago.
The entire planning model for South Works essentially boils down to one alderman's recent comment on the site, stating to Chicago Public Radio that "the idea... is to bring the North Side to the South Side." And what does bringing the north side to the south side mean? According to the same story, "The developer says that means stores like Banana Republic and the Gap are destined for the old U.S. Steel site, which has been sitting empty for nearly two decades."
Actually, some of us may call bringing the North Side to the South Side "gentrification," and the coded language of "stores like Banana Republic and the Gap" as implying a new neighborhood marketed to middle and upper class whites. But this is the plan coming out of City Hall; invest heavily in a vast vacant area on the South Side where little to no resident opposition can easily be mobilized, allow the adjacent mostly African-American neighborhoods to crumble due to foreclosures and a lack of economic investment (with the exception of Hyde Park - of course), and then allow developers and land speculators to buy up these properties at rock bottom prices in hope of future returns. A little TIF funding here, a little displacement there, a charter school here, another bland new urbanism project designed by SOM there, and there you have Chicago's New Burnham Plan.
The lack of planning for Chicago's future that would benefit all the city's residents is appalling. Instead of reflecting on what just happened to the housing market and how it helped spur the Great Recession and then draw conclusions on how not to repeat the same mistakes, the powers that be in Chicago are about to hit us over the head with more of the same.
As City Hall moves forward with helping facilitate this development there are a number of open questions about the South Works site that have yet to be addressed? Elevated Chicago called the site "500 acres of beautiful brownfield development," and maybe that's just what it is. But does that mean that more TIF funding will eventually be required to remove pollutants left from the past operations of the former steel plant site to properly develop it? And while the plan for the site boasts of a lakefront parks, but will this park be open to the public or will there be limited access to all or certain portions of the park? And who down at City Hall actually understands the historical significance of what has just occurred in the housing market and the overall economy?
The South Works site has all the potential to be the Chicago's next Block 37 as it goes through decades of starts and stops, delinquent loan payments from developers, fights over who controls the site once it has been foreclosed, all while continually siphoning money from the pockets of Chicago taxpayers. At the same time, it is a slap in the face to people all of the Chicago who are living in distressed and underfunded neighborhoods, facing down more cuts in services and an economy churning out poor jobs reports on a monthly basis.
So here's a suggestion to the Mayor and City Council; before we go forward with plans to dump more tax money into non-existent neighborhoods, let's take care of the neighborhoods we have first.