SLCC files freedom of information request as One Central Station questions remain
October 4, 2019

Courtesy Landmark Development
South Loop residents continue to voice concerns about building heights for the proposed One Central structures near Soldier Field and the lakefront.

By Peter L. Winslow

It has been roughly six months since Landmark Development’s One Central proposal, and the logistics of the mixed-use mega-development remain controversial.

The South Loop Concerned Coalition (SLCC) has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) to try to clear up some questions.

Landmark Development, a private real estate organization formed by Wisconsin developer Bob Dunn, has its eyes on a 34-acre site adjacent to the South Loop community, McCormick Place, and Soldier Field.

Dunn intends to erect a mass of buildings that combine residential housing, office space, entertainment venues, and a transportation hub. All this infrastructure would rest atop a platform built above the existing Metra tracks just north of McCormick Place in the South Loop neighborhood. Landmark has owned the air rights above these Metra tracks since 1989. The projected cost of One Central hovers around $20 billion over a 15-year building period.

In spring, Illinois lawmakers approved plans for the State to purchase One Central’s transit hub, upon completion, with a price tag of $6.5 billion. Instead of presenting a bill to the Illinois General Assembly, Illinois lawmakers added provisional language to the budget implementation bill (SB 1814) that funds all State government. This allows Governor JB Pritzker’s administration to negotiate with Landmark regarding purchasing the hub without any additional legislative decision making. Governor Pritzker signed SB 1814 into law on June 5.

With Illinois taxpayer dollars poised to help construct the transit hub, Landmark was able to begin its Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) application. RRIF is a Federal Department of Transportation program that provides direct loans and loan guarantees to finance railroad infrastructure.

According to the RRIF program overview, credit assistance to finance transit-oriented developments is available only until Dec. 4, 2019, a reason that SB 1814 contained the One Central provision. This process has disconcerted some South Loop area residents and City and State officials, who wanted more transparency in the initial evaluative process.

City and State approval needed

Before any agreement, Landmark must submit a formal proposal to the City of Chicago for vetting and subsequent approval. Also, the transit hub purchase process with the State may hinge on a favorable outcome from the Federal funding application.

The mixed-used mega-development narrative is becoming familiar to Chicagoans, especially since the City Council recently approved The 78 and Lincoln Yards in April. Even though an agreement seems far off, some Illinois taxpayers and representatives remain skeptical about the demand or need for One Central.

Landmark Development “talked a lot about what this means for Metra, RTA, CTA, and Amtrak by bringing in local, regional, and national rail together, but I have not heard from any of these entities on whether or not they see a need, whether or not they are proponents of the project,” said State Representative Kambium Buckner (D-26th).

Buckner wants admissions of support from these entities and stresses “that has to happen before we do any of this.” He continues to advocate for a robust community engagement process and has not shied away from projecting his disappointment in the State’s decision making.

When asked if he has received any updates regarding One Central, Buckner said, “I have had some very good conversations with Alderman [Pat] Dowell about her concerns and wanting to make sure that we keep the process transparent, but I do not know what is going on with them on a federal level, what the timeline is, or when any of this is expected to happen.”

MPEA and SLCC

The One Central renderings show the project occupies the City’s Planned Development (PD) zoning designations PD499 and PD331. Currently, MPEA controls PD331 and does not allow private development within its boundaries for any purpose other than serving McCormick Place.

In October 2018, McCormick Place released a 2018-32-M request for proposal (RFP) for a mixed use development opportunity. The deadline for RPF responses was November 9, 2018. So why is this relevant almost a full year later? The only site restriction the McCormick Place RFP referenced was “the uses and Project contemplated by this RFP do not conform to PD331, as presently in effect.”

In response, the SLCC submitted a FOIA request to the MPEA in August for bid proposal 2018-32-M, as One Central’s development appears to incorporate PD331. The MPEA denied the request, saying it is actively reviewing proposals and that publicly disclosing the requested information could “frustrate” the procurement process.

SLCC members feel anxious about many issues including the potential impact of construction noise, traffic and pedestrian congestion, cost, and the buildings’ sizes. SLCC directors have contacted Landmark Development to understand the proposal and address the organization’s concerns but have received no response.

SLCC, a non-profit organization comprising 18 homeowners’ associations and 6,000 area residents, has organized a GoFundMe fundraiser to hire experts, publicists, and lobbyists to conduct independent research addressing concerns and evaluating demand and viability for the development and transit hub. So far, the group has raised $14,000 toward its goal of $60,000.

The SLCC filed the FOIA request, said Jeffery A. Key, SLCC vice president, because, “It seemed to us that the City of Chicago indicated MPEA couldn’t develop that north sliver of PD331 without partnering with another big plot of land.  And since Dunn’s group, One Central, really controls PD 499 that’s adjacent, it seemed that there was only one possibility for the request for proposals.  The request for proposals was really directed to a single entity, Landmark Development, and no one else could really do anything.  We just wanted to confirm that before we jumped to what seems the obvious conclusion. Can we get some documentation on what was the result for the request for proposal?  And the proposal closed a year ago.”

When asked if SLCC has any definitive confirmation that PD331 is controlled by One Central, Key said, “We are trying to put all of these pieces together.  We want this information from McCormick [Place] to help put the puzzle together. The final piece for us is all of Landmark’s renderings [showing] Landmark using PD331.  It’s really just getting a confirmation of it. Their renderings show it; PD331 controls that 18th street exit from Lake Shore Drive, and that is all incorporated in One Central’s renderings.  If it is obvious what’s going on, then why are they protecting it, denying it, road-blocking inquiries?”

Affordable housing demand

State Senator Robert Peters (D-13th) believes Chicago is in a transportation crisis and wants public infrastructure to address deeply rooted issues. Peters is excited to see the One Central plans “if it’s built with a large amount of truly affordable housing and it’s truly transit oriented for folks in desperate need of more public transportation,” he said. Peters suggested the development should devote a substantial amount of its residential housing to moderate and low-income Chicagoans.

“We should get a study on affordable housing, on the environment, on transportation, on congestion,” Peters added. “There should be a host of studies that truly represent for the broader city.”

Officials have conducted one formal study so far. Around mid-March, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study by AECOM, a multinational engineering firm, to showcase One Central’s potential benefits. The study referenced a potential for 40,000 new jobs across sectors during each year of construction and a total fiscal benefit of $120 billion over 40 years. SLCC members are not buying in, however.

“The big concern is there is all this excitement and glittery report about a best case scenario for One Central, when in fact there has been no data, no empirical study showing that there is demand to make this work,” said Jeffery A. Key, SLCC vice president. He commented that those proposing the project have not supplied any definitive research ensuring Illinois won’t get “saddled with another white elephant.”

Key added, “Our objective is first and foremost, transparency.  This whole thing is being very opaque.  We want transparency.”

Because of this, SLCC is planning to follow up with the MPEA and City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development “to use all of our resources to get information publicized regarding all of the plans,” Key said.

“We got word that one of their [One Central’s] lobbyists wanted to meet with our group and we were certainly in favor of meeting with them, but in order to have a meaningful meeting, we needed some information, more than just the dog and pony show that they provided to the wider community,” Key said. “We need to know the nuts and bolts information.  We sent that request to them and have heard nothing from them. So what we would like is some substantive information that is behind all the curtains.”

Key concluded, “There is a developer and they own air rights over the tracks and there is a certain Floor Area Ratio (FAR) that is available and that something can happen.  That is understood.  What they’re proposing is five times the existing FAR and they don’t give us any information on how they propose to increase that.

It is also apparent that the City plan was for something much, much smaller in that area. That is what is appropriate in the mix.”

Landmark Development declined Gazette Chicago’s invitation to participate in an interview regarding One Central.

To contact Representative Buckner, email Buckner@illinois26.com. To reach Alderman Dowell’s office, call (773) 373-9273. To contact Landmark Development, email: info@landmarkcompany.com. To contact Senator Robert Peters, call (217) 782-5338. For Governor Pritzker’s office, log on to www2.illinois.gov/agencies/GOV. To reach the SLCC, email slcc.volunteers@gmail.com.