Riverfront megadevelopment headed to City Hall for approval


After approving the first phase of the 30-acre River District development in October, the Chicago Plan Commission is preparing to vote on an even larger riverfront proposal—the 62-acre, Near South Side campus known as The 78. The mixed-use project is the largest to appear on the commission’s preliminary November agenda.

Developed by Related Midwest with architectural master planning by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, The 78 calls for nothing short of an entirely new neighborhood between the South Loop and Chinatown. It is one of several locations Chicago has shopped to Amazon for its HQ2 second headquarters. The Seattle-based tech giant is expected to announce the winning city by the end of the year.

Though the final design of The 78 will ultimately depend on an end users like Amazon or some other major corporate tenant, the development team is ready to get the zoning process rolling. Phase one of the megaproject focuses primarily on building new roads and relocating the Metra tracks that currently obstruct the eastern side of the site.

Future phases are expected to include a number of skyscrapers rising as high as 950 feet tall, a seven-acre crescent shaped park, a 100-foot-wide public riverwalk with a water taxi stop, a university-affiliated innovation center known as the Discovery Partners Institute, and 10,000 residential units.

The 78 isn’t the only notable development headed to City Hall in November. The Plan Commission will also consider a pair of West Loop apartment towers slated for Van Buren Street, the mixed-use Ogden Commons project in Douglas Park, and a University of Chicago plan for a 12-story hotel at 1225 E. 60th Street—an item deferred at last month’s meeting.

Meanwhile, the Bank of America-anchored office tower under construction at 110 N. Wacker Drive will make its third trip in front of the commissioners. The Goettsch-designed skyscraper was initially approved in March of 2017 only to return in December to seek an additional 100,000 square feet of floor space. Looking to now add another 50,000 square feet, the riverfront high-rise will increase its final height from 800 to 830 feet.

Ballot measures target theoretical property tax


On their Nov. 6 ballots, voters in many parts of the suburbs will spot an opportunity to sound off about high property taxes.

In DuPage, Kane and Lake counties, and in Hanover Township in Cook County, ballots include advisory referendums about a potential new statewide property tax. The language varies, but what the referendums have in common is that they ask voters whether the state should be prohibited from creating such a tax.

“The public outcry will be strong,” said State Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove. Voters, he said, “know we have some of the highest property taxes in the country. They’re going to speak up about this.”

In Lake County, the ballot asks, “Shall the Illinois General Assembly amend the State Constitution to ban the creation of a new statewide property tax?” In the other three areas, there’s a specific figure for the new tax: 1 percent of home value.

There is no statewide property tax, 1 percent or otherwise, on the table in Springfield, though the ballot language may lead voters to believe there is.

In May, a trio of economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago released a paper that argued Illinois could pay off its $129.1 billion in unfunded pension obligations with a statewide property tax of 1 percent for 30 years, as Crain’s reported at the time.

That’s as far as the idea got, but it was far enough to convince some county and township boards to put a referendum on the ballot that lets voters say whether they want to block the state from moving on the idea.

By voting to block the tax, even though it’s only hypothetical, “we’re giving the state legislature advice,” said Kurt Kojzarek, a Kane County Board member representing District 19 (Gilberts). “They got advice from the Fed and now they’ll get advice from the voters on whether it’s a good idea.”

(By the way, because of the way the referendums are worded, people who want to vote “no” on a new tax should vote “yes” on the referendum, and vice versa.)

Brian McGuire, Hanover Township supervisor, said that while a statewide property tax is a phantom at the moment, “it’s always good to have residents voice their opinion on an issue,” particularly one that “is on everybody’s mind.”

Some county board members consider the referendum meaningless.

“It’s like somebody is breaking into your house and you’re handed a gun to shoot at them,” said Vance Wyatt, a Lake County Board member representing District 14 (North Chicago). “It only shoots blanks, but it makes some noise, and you think the noise will stop them.”

Wyatt, who represents an area that is both among the county’s poorest and subject to some of the county’s highest property tax rates, said that in talks with constituents, he’s found rampant confusion about the referendum. “Most people really do believe that if they vote against the new tax, it will keep their property taxes from going up,” he said. “But it won’t.”

Suburban real estate agents have been lighting up social media with exhortations about the referendum in the past week. Among them is Pam Weinert, an agent at Re/Max of Barrington, who said she hadn’t heard of the referendum until she spotted it on the early-voting ballot.

Weinert said the referendum “isn’t solving the property tax problem, it’s exacerbating it, making people even madder” by setting up a straw man, the hypothetical state tax, that voters can throw punches at.

“I’d rather see some real possibilities for solving Illinois’ problems put on the ballot,” Weinert said.

Chicago Architecture Biennial team inspired by city’s geography, history, and civic role


Artistic director Yesomi Umolu and her curatorial team are still in the research phase for the 2019 edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, but the ideas and themes taking shape for next year’s program are refreshing and use architecture as a way to examine issues beyond the built world.

In a conversation at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thursday, Umolu and Sarah Herda, the Director of the Graham Foundation and former Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic director, discussed the key concepts for the upcoming CAB: land and occupation; nature and ecology; memory and monuments; and civic participation.

Although the biennial is still about a year out, and an official theme hasn’t been announced, the team is beginning to concentrate their research initiatives. Umolu and her two co-curators, educator Sepake Angiama and architect/urbanist Paulo Tavares spent the summer together in Chicago investigating the city’s histories, landscapes, and communities.

What emerged from their study so far will be central to the programming in the 2019 edition of CAB. The team is most interested in investigating how Chicago’s spaces, socio-economic conditions, and history has made it what it is today.

In plain terms, that means looking Chicago’s geographic location between the Great Plains and Great Lakes, seeing how its Rust Belt history has shaped the city, and examining the city’s founding on federally appropriated indigenous lands. The team will also consider the Chicago’s political role in civil rights, segregation, and housing movements as well as how waves of migration from Europe, the American South, and Central America impacted development.

In addition to Chicago, the curatorial team will also research three other cities they’ve chose to focus on for the program through a series of public talks, workshops, tours, and informal conversations over the next few months.

“We thought about how these core topics might connect to other urban centers around the world, and settled on three locations—Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, and Vancouver which is the red herring we threw in there, we think,” Umolu said.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil the team will explore the housing rights movement and look at how social movements, architects, activists, and indigenous communities use space as advocacy for social justice and civic partnership. They’ll visit Johannesburg, South Africa to see how architecture and memory in contested spaces work in intergenerational communities. In Vancouver, the three curators will focus on indigenous rights, land speculation, housing equity, and architecture as a form of protest.

One thing is clear, Umolu and her team want people to think critically about the space they occupy and how it changes. During her conversation with Herda, she spoke about the idea of an architect. Is it someone who is a master builder, or could it be a social leader with how they transform their space?

Unlike previous biennials, Umolu was eager to begin a dialogue and share the focus of her teams research so that she could be open with practitioners and give faculty the opportunity to shape curriculum around the biennial to prepare students for the programming, Umolu said.

The third edition of the Chicago Architectural Biennial launches on Thursday, September 19, 2019 and run until Sunday, January 5, 2020. Every two years the biennial returns to Chicago with a new artistic director and curatorial team. Artists from around the world are invited to present their work during the biennial which has a main exhibition site downtown at the Chicago Cultural Center but is also anchored at locations throughout the city’s neighborhoods.

Transit-oriented development expands to bus corridors on South, West sides

Back in June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel first presented plans to incorporate bus routes into the transit-oriented development (TOD) policy. On Sunday the mayor announced, $5 million from the 2019 budget will support this incentive for developers to build along the Chicago Avenue and 79th Street bus routes.

If you’re not familiar, one goal of transit-oriented development is to increase housing near CTA and Metra stations so that people walk and use public transportation more frequently. In this most recent expansion of the policy, Chicago would be the first city to implement transit-oriented development around bus lines, according to the mayor’s office.

TOD projects get reduced parking requirements plus greater height and density allowances which encourages developers to build in areas that may have less housing. These developments generate more money for the developer—an apartment will get more dollars than a parking space. The program, which began in 2013 and was expanded in 2015, created a lot of construction and some argue even gentrification particularly along Milwaukee Avenue near the Blue Line stations.

The two bus corridors were selected by the city due to high ridership—No. 66 Chicago Avenue line saw 6.9 million riders in 2017 and No. 79 79th Street route had 7.8 million riders in the same year. In addition to more development, the city will also make improvements to bus stops and at crosswalks which include designated bus lanes, new pavement and signage, better bus stop locations, and curb extensions.

In addition to Chicago Avenue and 79th Street, officials are also considering Western Avenue, Ashland Avenue and other bus corridors with high ridership as potential areas for TOD expansion.

CDOT will work with the CTA and the mayor’s office to select exact locations for the TOD policy and make infrastructure improvements. The full proposal along will be introduced to City Council in December.

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