By Peter Winslow
The South Loop Concerned Coalition (SLCC) recently convened a panel of experts to analyze a revised One Central proposal by Wisconsin-based developer Bob Dunn, president of Landmark Development. Phyllis Leon, SLCC president, hosted the panel, moderated by board members Jeffery Key and Joan Lovell. The SLCC showed the panel discussion on its website as well as Facebook and YouTube.
Panel members were Joseph Schweiterman, PhD, a professor at DePaul University’s School for Public Service, Department of Public Policy and Sustainable Urban Development; John Talbot, an attorney and civil engineer; and John Filan, a former Illinois budget director. Talbot and Filan live in the South Loop. The SLCC disseminated renderings of the latest proposal for the mixed-use development in a Jan. 25 community Zoom webinar.
Landmark Development wants to build One Central on a 31-acre site adjacent to Solider Field and the McCormick Place Convention Center. The gargantuan complex would contain residential housing, office space, an entertainment venue, and a transportation hub above the 18th Street Metra railyard.
The latest revisions reduce the number of skyscrapers from ten to nine but factor in an increased height and floor area ratio (FAR) for every remaining skyscraper. Landmark also made more changes to physical designs for the midrise buildings and proposes raising the ten-block platform from 50 to 71 feet.
An alleged lack of technical analysis and sporadic general information makes Schweiterman wary the proposed location could permit a feasible transit center despite Landmark’s insistence that the Amtrak, Metra, and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) lines’ convergence would benefit access to downtown. Neither Amtrak nor CTA has issued formal statements promising or even hinting interest in consolidating existing transit lines into that part of the city.
A transportation hub must coordinate connections expertly to provide riders concurrent access to multiple destinations if the geographic circumstances allow for it, Schweiterman said. He sees two primary complications with the revised proposal: problematic geographic circumstances and divergent existing transit services.
As he explained, adding a CTA stop would cost millions and potentially could decrease ridership to other parts of the city.
“To build a hub there, like adding a CTA rail, you will probably have to reduce [ridership] to some other parts of the city,” Schweiterman said. “If you were to route Orange Line trains there from Midway, hypothetically you would probably reduce the number of Orange Line trains going from Midway to downtown. You are going to get some heavy opposition when you start diverting trains to this location.”
Based on the renderings provided earlier this year, the potential addition of a CTA line would require additional infrastructure—known as rail line spurs—to detour trains along the St. Charles Air Line to the site. This would require demolishing an entire block of buildings, perhaps more if trains were to come from multiple directions, according to Schweiterman.
“I doubt many people would want to take the train to One Central as a destination in itself enough to justify a rail line,” said Schweiterman. “It is not particularly clear what function that would serve in our transit system, given that you could easily provide efficient bus service from this development to downtown or take the Metra electric. The CTA line is a bit of an enigma to me as to what it is going to bring us in terms of better transportation.”
Besides Schweiterman’s concern about operational functionality, the longstanding issue of Chicago’s transit inequity again reared its head.
“Low-income neighborhoods often have sub-adequate service, and putting your resources into a new development that is likely going to be affluent has real equity implications,” explained Schweiterman. “It doesn’t mean you don’t do it, but you certainly study it carefully and make sure you aren’t robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Talbot began by analyzing the seven-story civic build platform proposed to sit atop the Walden Yards, which would stretch approximately 3,500 feet from the north end of McCormick Place to McFetridge Drive.
“The complexities of building over an operating railroad system are immense—the general design of the building to take into account, the noise and vibrations of them,” said Talbot. “The operating tracks become an impediment to construction and safety during development. There are many complexities that really result in a cost premium of 20% to 30% for the project.”
$6.5 billion taxpayer tab
Builders would use the $6.5 billion they want Illinois taxpayers to provide not only for the transit hub but to fund the “full foundation systems for all of the private build components which are incrementally [and] substantially larger and more involved than just a platform of railroad tracks,” Talbot explained. Landmark Development will invest $5 billion into the civic build over the 20-year build period, according to the proposal.
The proposed project’s total square footage, which includes the platform and vertical build, would measure up to 22.3 million square feet, with a FAR of 16.42—in one portion nearly four times bigger than the suggested FAR designated by the City’s Department of Planning and Development.
Talbot said One Central’s size would impose unprecedented infrastructure planning and implementation on the City of Chicago, as existing infrastructure such as roads, sewer lines, water lines, storm water drainage, and other public utilities would require extensive planning for a much larger geographic area than the proposed site itself.
“The current infrastructure simply does not contemplate this type of development in any way, shape, or form” and would involve many departments within the City of Chicago to try to accommodate this site, according to Talbot. “It would have far reaching effects through the neighborhood and near South Side of Chicago.”
Filan delved into the contractual obligation Landmark has asked the State to enter into to pay $6.5 billion for the entire civic build over 20 years. The State would not have the option of owning the transit hub until it has paid this staggering financial obligation in full. Landmark Development would receive all revenue that accumulates before the end date. According to Filan, if officials accept a formal proposal, the State would release approximately $200 million each year starting in 2024 (or after the completion of the civic build), with incremental increases most years until the twentieth year, when the State’s commitment would top off at roughly $400 million per year.
Where would all this money come from? The liability would sit squarely on taxpayers’ shoulders across the State, with the money coming from the State’s General Fund, “specifically from sales tax revenue, as is spelled in the law that was passed,” said Filan. “That same revenue is used for everything else in the State: schools, mental health hospitals, State police, and so on. Either you have to find more revenue, or you have to reduce spending somewhere else.”
‘I would oppose it’
Filan stated, “I would oppose it, and every budget director I’m acquainted with would oppose it as well. The information is just insufficient to provide any confidence that the State will benefit or get sales tax revenue far down the road if all of this comes together. There are just too many maybes.”
When asked if SLCC will reconvene an expert panel to vet a formal proposal submission to the City, Key said the organization would not if Landmark submits what it showed on Jan. 25.
If Landmark makes additional changes, however, SLCC will “seriously consider the merits of an additional panel review because our mission is to ensure that the public and public officials fully understand the scope of what One Central is seeking to do.”
To watch the virtual panel discussion, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_cDlVxLgXQ. For more information on Landmark Development, log on to https://landmarkcompany.com. To contact Dowell, call (773) 373-9273. For more on the South Loop Concerned Coalition, visit https://southloopconceredcoalition.org/.
For more information about the work of the SLCC, how to become involved with the organization, or how to donate, log onto southloopconcernedcoalition.org.
Editor’s note: Landmark Development did not respond to interview requests, nor did Alderman Pat Dowell’s team comment on the revised proposal.