Innovation center proposed for South Loop, will create partnership among universities
November 30, 2017

The Discovery Partners Institute may revitalize underused property in the South Loop while leveraging University of Illinois System expertise and resources, including from the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago as well as from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

By Rick Romano

While a specific site plan remains a year away, a recently announced proposal to convert a long-abandoned rail yard in South Loop into an innovation center may transform the South Loop and surrounding area, the city, and the state while creating and strengthening partnerships among several universities.

Governor Bruce Rauner and University of Illinois System President Timothy Killeen in October announced plans for Discovery Partners Institute, (DPI) a public-private research partnership led by the U of I System and expected to grow on part of a 62-acre parcel bordered by Roosevelt Road, Clark Street, 16th Street, and the Chicago River.

“DPI will help drive economic growth for generations,” Rauner said. “It combines our State’s most valuable resources in education, technology, and business so we can attract venture capital to build the businesses and jobs of the future.”

Killeen said the effort will add to Chicago’s innovation infrastructure “at the kind of scale that can massively accelerate progress and economic development in our state.” He also pointed to the University of Illinois System’s “long, rich history of pioneering innovation and a legacy of service to Illinois and to this global city.”

Noting the proximity of the proposed innovation center to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), one of the U of I System’s universities, UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis called DPI “an innovation ecosystem” that has “the potential to provide collaborative research and educational opportunities to UIC students” as well as supporting scientific discovery across the city and state.        

UIC recently began IGNITE: The Campaign for UIC, a $750 million fundraising campaign, and “Drive Discoveries” and “Connect to Communities” are two of its priorities.

According to an official UIC statement about its IGNITE campaign, it will connect “service-minded students and faculty with diverse individuals, neighborhoods, and cities across our state—and world—to build healthy, just, thriving communities.”

UIC College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs Dean Michael Pagano said the project is particularly important to UIC for faculty and student recruitment.

“It could be extraordinarily attractive for faculty looking for this type of partnership,” he said. “It’s a great way to attract the best and the brightest.”

Pagano also noted that “this will also make UIC more visible to the world, so it could attract more international students and faculty.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he looks forward to working with the state and other partners on DPI “as we turn this vision into a reality.”

The total cost is estimated at $1.2 billion, to be raised through private donations, government support, and partnerships with business and industry.

The innovation center will include residential, commercial, institutional, cultural, and recreational uses. The lab is expected to attract 90 new faculty and 1,800 students.

Three critical research areas

That reality will establish research labs in three key areas, said T.J. Augustine, associate vice president for economic development and innovation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“They are computing, health and wellness, and food and agriculture,” Augustine said, noting those intertwining themes are of “critical importance” to the state’s economic future.

“Ultimately, we want to drive the conversion of ideas to products that affect people’s lives,” Augustine said.

To do that will require continuing the governor’s ongoing interest to help leverage talent in the University of Illinois System and other universities in a new way, Augustine explained. He added that the University of Illinois System, its individual campuses—especially nearby UIC and others in the system, and other universities such as Northwestern University and the University of Chicago will work together not only to help establish the innovation campus but to tap into its advantages.

Officials expect the labs will attract 90 new faculty members and 1,800 students.

Corporate partnership is critical to establish a “critical mass” for research and development, Augustine said. The network of university and corporate partnerships is called the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN).

“We expect to attract private partners—those who are or want to be involved in this unique research,” he said.

The attraction lies in the location.

“Chicago is a global city,” he continued. “It is the capital of the Midwest, a place where our students come from, a place that draws talent.”

Cornell example

Establishing an urban tech center is not a new idea. Cornell Tech in New York City, for example, began as an initiative of New York City’s then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008 and became operational in 2012.

Officials will develop the DPI concept as part of a larger project being mapped by Chicago-based Related Midwest. The development company describes it as a mixed-use project that will include residential, commercial, institutional, cultural, and recreational uses. It will include 40% green and open space and a half-mile of developed riverfront, expanding the city’s existing Riverwalk.

According to Related Midwest, the project would connect to the city’s central business district via transit lines while providing bike-friendly streets.

The 78 designation

Throughout its descriptions of the development, Related Midwest refers to “The 78,” indicating that it will increase Chicago’s 77 official neighborhoods by one. That designation caught the attention of Dennis McClendon, the South Loop Neighbors’ planning and development chair. McClendon questioned whether it would be appropriate to label the relatively small-acre tract a separate community area like the 77 other Chicago communities that carry official designation for census tracking and urban planning.

Related Midwest spokesperson Gretchen Muller said “the 78” designation is merely a way to describe the area. “It’s what we strive to create with a development of this size and scope,” Muller noted. “It’s also a reflection of how significant it is, not just to us but to the entire city,” as it is “one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in downtown Chicago.”

Looking for South Loop connection 

McClendon and Bonnie Sanchez-Carlson, executive director of the Near South Planning Board, are interested in how the development will connect with surrounding neighborhoods.

“There are a couple of considerations,” McClendon said. “It would be unrealistic to expect anything other than midrise density for that site. The other thing that we have been concerned with is whether there will be adequate east-west [public transit] connections into that site. Hopefully that will be addressed.”

Sanchez-Carlson said enhancing the educational commitment makes sense.

“There will be a critical mass of students here during the day, but we are never looking for a self-contained neighborhood,” she said. “There needs to be connectivity so that what is planned and what is around what is planned feed off of each other.”

The “South Loop is a hot spot,” she added. “So we need to find ways to connect people with business and other amenities throughout our area’s neighborhoods.”

For more about DPI, log on to innovation.uillinois.edu. To contact the Near South Planning board, call (312) 987-1980. To contact Related Midwest, call (312) 595-7400. For more about the South Loop Neighbors, log on to www.southloopneighbors.org.