Chicago to shine up its north Loop

There's a new bud appearing on this city's blighted central business district -- a plan which would revitalize once-grand buildings and encourage new construction.

Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne is convinced that the urban redevelopment project she has put together for her city's north Loop area will provide 9,500 new permanent jobs and multiply the six-block area's $5 million real estate tax revenue four to eight times.

A key to Chicago's $1 billion north Loop development project is preliminary agreement on a $200 million hotel and convention center which would be built on two blocks overlooking the Chicago River.

This Hilton Hotel complex, city officials explain, is only in the early planning stages but already serves as a magnet, attracting interest in the area.

In addition, work has started on an architecturally daring, curving, glass-walled state office building, another major investment expected to upgrade the area substantially.

Just as crucial to the redevelopment project is the fact that Mayor Byrne has sold the idea to a variety of civic groups which banded together a decade ago to fight former Mayor Richard J. Daley's plans which would have virtually leveled the north Loop area.

After a number of heated rounds with such groups as the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, Mayor Byrne has endorsed redevelopment guidelines which meet most of the critics' demands.

One such demand is that, except for the area already set aside for a Hilton Hotel, open bidding will apply to the entire project.

Another crucial demand concerned the preservation of significant buildings in the area. The city now proposes to preserve six structures "because of their architectural and historical significance" and will encourage the preservation of at least the facades of other landmarks.

So the city which launched skyscrapers in 1883 is preparing to change its approach to urban development, by calling for redevelopment designed "so that existing buildings and the new construction can reinforce each other." A Landmarks Preservation Council report in January stated that this combination of old and new will "continue the city's role as a discoverer of new urban environments."

The preservation council points to successful redevelopment projects in such cities as Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle as proof that downtown renewal pays.

The council's report notes that "major activities and land uses continue to favor the downtown: corporate office activities, advanced corporate services, intensified governmental functions at all levels, and expansion of cultural facilities."

The project will be a continuing benefit for the city, the report concludes, because increasing the variety of activities will increase the area's use throughout the day and evening hours.

Former critics of Chicago's redevelopment plans are particularly pleased that the city now proposes to save three, and possibly four, old theaters. A new arcade, according to the latest plans, would re-create a once-thriving theater district.

Planners expect this revival to spark a return of the fine restaurants that once flourished in the north Loop -- before its elegant theaters slipped into decay and began featuring X-rated movies.

Only a month ago Mayor Byrne still fought hard for tax abatements to attract developers to the north Loop project. But the mayor now finds that major developers appear eager to invest in the project even without the 13-year, 60 percent tax cut proposed earlier.

The city does plan to spend from $50 million to $75 million in acquiring property in the north Loop. City planners note that "the greatest impediment to development is the fact that the land is generally held in small, privately owned properties," and thus the city must step in to consolidate the property for development -- using municipal cash and the power of eminent domain.

City planners also will take steps to require developers to provide for a full mix of development so that the area doesn't become an "office-scape" -- abandoned every evening after five.

The most controversial aspect of the project, as it unfolds over the next five years, will be picking the developers. But Chicago's new planning guidelines state that "the city will dispose of the land in the north Loop redevelopment area through an open, fair, and orderly process."

Civic groups battled hard for this "fairness" provision to replace the parceling out of the area by mayoral fiat.

The groups are determined to make the city keep its promise to "consider a broad range of factors, including developer capability and experience, design and architecture, the price offered, developer contributions to the project, the nature of the development proposals, among others, and all discussion will be documented on these criteria."

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