Greising: Chicago Lincoln Yards Deal Should Be Delayed

The Millennium Park experience shows the cost of moving too fast. There is a better deal to be gotten at Lincoln Yards than the one on the drawing boards right now.

The view looking north along the North Branch of the Chicago River from Division Street, circa 1969. (UIC Library Digital Collection/Flickr)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

The idea was to create one of the city of Chicago’s greatest-ever redevelopments of underutilized space.

The land in question was downright derelict: left behind from an earlier era of industrialization; within sight of recreational water, but seemingly miles away.

To turn it around would take the kind of ambition prized by Chicagoans, the “make no little plans” mentality. And it could be done, the mayor promised, without hurting taxpayers.

The development in question: Millennium Park. A landmark today, the park suffered poor planning, a rush to get started and lack of public oversight—all of which resonates today amidst the push to move forward on the massive urban redevelopment project called Lincoln Yards.

Millennium Park was the Lincoln Yards of its day: ambitious, outrageous even. Just as some civic boosters are pushing for Lincoln Yards today, Millennium Park was pushed hard in 1998, when Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled his plan.

Daley saw it as his legacy project, like Mayor Rahm Emanuel does with Lincoln Yards. And Daley was not wrong. Millennium Park is a marvel. Who would ever give up “The Bean”?

Millennium Park has become the wraparound veranda that opens into Grant Park, the city’s front yard. But the path to getting there was fraught with bloated budgets, expensive construction mistakes, waste arising from poor planning and an unnecessarily large cost to taxpayers. Much of it flowed from the headlong rush into the project at the start.

Daley at first said Millennium Park could be built for $150 million, but it came in at $490 million, with taxpayers forking over $95 million.

Construction ran years behind. There were lawsuits and countersuits.  Daley cronies got a cut-rate lease for the Park Grill, and criminal charges arose from a crooked landscaping contract. To recoup costs, the city leased the parking lot under the park, giving up revenue and prompting huge rate hikes. Daley quietly borrowed $30 million over the park’s first six years to help cover operating costs.

None of this is meant to say Lincoln Yards should not be built. The $6 billion, 55-acre redevelopment on the North Branch of the Chicago River probably should move forward—but only after all the costs are known, benefits guaranteed and impacts adequately understood.

There is still more to be gained, and more to be protected, before residents and the city are certain they are getting a fair deal from developer Sterling Bay. More information is needed on traffic, infrastructure costs, gentrification of nearby neighborhoods and how much the project will distract City Hall’s attention from overlooked and neglected parts of the city where development is needed, too.

To this point, Sterling Bay clearly has not yet made its best and final offer. That is evident because, so far, each time the community pushes back, the developer keeps backing away.

Towers once planned at 800 feet are now down to a more tolerable 650 feet, or about 50 stories. The traffic-clogging soccer stadium is gone. So is the prefab Live Nation entertainment complex that threatened home-grown spots like the Hideout, Metro, Schubas, Lincoln Hall and others.

Just this week, Sterling Bay committed to add more affordable-housing units to the largely upscale development.  

Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward would be home to Lincoln Yards, has steadfastly supported the project, and Ald. James Cappleman, 46th, who chairs the Zoning Committee, was expected finally to make his views known at a committee meeting today.

Regardless of what the aldermen think, none of this should move forward until a new mayor is elected. Both candidates, Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, have said as much. One of them will need to work with Sterling Bay over years of construction, so there should be buy-in from the new City Hall at the start: It’s astonishing Sterling Bay doesn’t see that.

Some will warn that Chicago could lose Lincoln Yards, just as New York lost a major Amazon development due to pushback in Brooklyn.

But Lincoln Yards is a bigger deal than Amazon’s was. It is site-specific: a unique brownfield site on the banks of the Chicago River. The money Sterling Bay can make is still almost beyond computation, and if Sterling Bay walks, another developer will step in.

The Millennium Park experience shows the cost of moving too fast. The city should take its time on Lincoln Yards. There is a better deal to be gotten than the one on the drawing boards right now.