By Madeline Makoul
Editor’s Note: For this article, developer Bob Dunn and Landmark Development did not respond to interview requests. Alderman Pat Dowell’s team declined to comment.
After developer Bob Dunn revealed initial plans for his proposed One Central development in spring 2019, South Loop community objections prompted him to make revisions. The latest One Central updates further detail the development’s massive plans for skyscrapers, shopping options, and a transportation hub set to span multiple city blocks in the South Loop, but opponents find the new plans to be no improvement over the originals.
One Central reflects Dunn’s vision for a $20 billion mixed-use project. Its 31-acre platform between the museum campus on the Near South Side and McCormick Place Convention Center above the train tracks would host an array of hotels, retail, dining, residential units, and entertainment as well as a transit hub incorporating Metra, Amtrak, and CTA trains. Additionally, the project would include skyscrapers as high as 89 stories.
Landmark Development, Dunn’s company, also is asking Springfield for $6.5 billion in State funding for the 20-year project.
According to Jeffery Key, vice president for the South Loop Concerned Coalition (SLCC), Dunn presented his proposal’s latest mockup in a community Zoom webinar on Jan. 25 to share Landmark Development’s revisions, which Key said basically kept the same imposing density and height as before. Changes include reducing the number of skyscrapers from ten to nine but making those nine buildings taller to account for losing one, Key explained.
Dunn’s latest update also changes the midrise buildings on the platform, which Key said were once “swoopy and curvaceous” and are now more “conventional and boxy.” Plus, the ten-block platform’s height jumped from 50 feet tall to 71 feet.
“You have to think of the Great Wall of China,” Key said. “Think for a minute about a ten-story wall going for ten city blocks continuously. What would that look like? That’s what One Central is.”
As community concerns over the prospect of such a massive structure mount, residents and the City still are awaiting a formal proposal.
After the developer floated the proposal in early 2019, “Discussions were initiated in November 2020,” explained Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD). “A formal proposal has not been submitted yet. Large development proposals are formalized through Planned Development zoning applications to City Council, which has yet to occur.”
Key noted that, while nothing is official yet, the development team is working with contractors and surveyors who have been at the site. So the development appears to be moving forward even though the community has not been involved adequately in the continuing changes.
“This revised One Central plan was delivered to the DPD on Nov. 30, 2020,” Key said. “We made several FOIA requests for that information, and every one was denied.”
Instead, community members did not receive access to the latest version until the day before the community meeting in January.
As an official proposal has yet to be submitted by Dunn and Landmark Development, Strazzabosco said. DPD still is waiting for more information before sharing a formal response.
Conflicting plan details
Many in the SLCC and community expressed displeasure over the new plans.
Key explained his group compared the proposed 71-foot platform to neighboring structures already present in the South Loop. SLCC’s comparison included 1717 S. Prairie Ave., which Landmark’s proposal claims has a garage platform measuring 69 feet—only a small difference from Dunn’s proposed 71-foot platform. Key said the SLCC had a civil engineer verify the height after the meeting, however. Using a laser measurement, the engineer found the platform at 1717 S. Prairie actually stands at 49 feet—30% shorter than Dunn’s approximations.
“Why did they do this?” Key asked. “To make things in the neighborhood look relatively more imposing and less different from One Central’s platform and buildings. The DPD and alderpeople had this for months, the same presentation, and they didn’t call it out on the hearing on the 25th. There was a reason why we got ambushed with this information—so we couldn’t tell people, ‘This is wrong, you are being manipulated and a little deceived.’”
Dennis McClendon, the South Loop Neighbors’ vice president for planning and development, said he is “amused by the absurdity” of One Central, sharing that community meetings held so far, including the one in January, clearly show community members remain “fiercely” opposed.
“This is, in essence, the developer saying to the State, ‘make me some new land and I’ll build highrises on it,’” McClendon said. “Why has the State simply not told him to go pound sand? I don’t understand.”
Key explained Landmark already owns the air rights over the proposed One Central development and has rights to build. Landmark’s plan as it stands, however, actually is “five times bigger and more dense than what they are allowed to do based on the current FAR [floor area ratio] for that site. If the City of Chicago, including the alderpeople and the DPD, were flexing their muscles, we would see a revised plan that was scaled down closer to the FAR they are permitted to do. You wouldn’t see this huge imposing wall; you wouldn’t see these mega towers because the FAR isn’t there.”
However, Strazzabosco explained that to begin the Planned Development review process, a formal zoning application must be submitted. Once this is done, the City can begin reviewing.
“Planned Development designations enable multiple city agencies to refine development proposals to directly address community context and local needs,” Strazzabosco said.
Key explained that, in 2019, Senate Bill 1814 HA #1 put the State and Landmark Development in partnership on the plan’s large transit portion.
“It authorizes [Governor JB] Pritzker to enter into an agreement with Landmark to spend $3.8 billion on a ‘civic build’ with the transportation hub shopping mall included in the platform,” Key said. “Then Illinois repays Landmark with interest for a total of $6.5 billion, and Illinois would own the hub after 20 years.”
Key said the SLCC in 2019 sent a letter to legislators “objecting to how [House Speaker Michael] Madigan and Dunn snuck the funding in without input,” and the group sent a petition with more than 1,000 signatures objecting to the deal. Officials approved the funding anyway.
McClendon said, “I think the mystery that has everyone stepping carefully is how does this guy [Dunn] know his way around Springfield so well that he keeps getting these special provisions to pass in the budget bill?” McClendon said. “I think that makes everybody a little reluctant to just dismiss him out of hand.”
Impact on the community
Strazzabosco explained the steps moving forward if and when a formal proposal is submitted, which includes more community meetings.
“If a PD application is filed, it will require a formal public review and approval process that includes community meetings and public hearings with the Plan Commission and City Council,” Strazzabosco said.
Key asserted that, if built, One Central “will ruin the South Loop as we know it, robbing us of air and light.” He noted 20 years of construction would subject the community to decades of dirt, dust, and “unimaginable seismic impact. How would you like to live next to a construction project for 20 years, as everything you know goes away and is blotted out with a massive wall and humungous towers?”
For McClendon, from a city planning standpoint, the project in itself is “a terrible idea.” The development would see access primarily via cars, particularly via Roosevelt, which may not be able to handle an influx of traffic, and he does not think the developer understands the area’s public transportation.
“The whole transportation hub is just beyond silly, and no one thinks it’s a good idea to have a transportation hub at 16th and Indiana,” McClendon said. “The developer doesn’t seem to really understand what trains go there. He was talking about, in the future, Amtrak stopping there, but Amtrak is not going to use those lines in a couple of years. The only line that goes through there is Metra, and it doesn’t have that much ridership, and the idea that you could extend some CTA line there at an enormous cost doesn’t make sense.”
With Block 37 as an example of a similar transportation and shopping hub, currently with 24 tenants, 22 vacancies, and already having gone through a foreclosure proceeding, Key agreed One Central makes no sense.
“That’s not going to pay us back $6.5 billion in sales taxes on a larger scale down here,” Key said. “We don’t even have the benefit of the State Street shopping corridor. It’s essentially nuts. It can’t possibly work.”
To contact Dowell, call (773) 373-9273. For Landmark, log on to landmarkcompany.com. For more on South Loop Concerned Coalition, visit https://southloopconcernedcoalition.org/. To see more about South Loop Neighbors, visit www.southloopneighbors.org/. Updates from DPD on One Central plans can be found at www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/dcd/supp_info/one-central.html.