From financial albatross to economic engine: City Council poised to turn Michael Reese site into $4 billion developmentFran Spielmanon July 21, 2021 at 3:44 pm

The City Council will move Wednesday to turn a financial albatross on Chicago taxpayers into an economic engine with potential to generate $3.1 billion in new tax revenue for the city and create nearly 10,000 jobs.

Before adjourning for the summer, aldermen laid the groundwork for a development team to build a seven-million-square-foot, mixed-used development on the site once occupied by Michael Reese Hospital.

In a rapid-fire series of votes, the City Council is poised to:

o Sell the 48.6-acre site to the Farpoint Development-led team known as GRIT Chicago for at least $96.9 million.

o Earmark $60 million from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $3.7 billion capital plan to repay developers of the project known as “Bronzeville Lakefront” for new and improved roads and a two-acre park at the site that stretches from 26th Street south to 31st Street and from Lake Park Avenue west to Vernon Avenue.

o And authorize zoning for nearly 8 million square feet of residential and commercial uses.

The first phase of the roughly $4 billion project is to include a research facility operated by Israel’s highly regarded Sheba Medical Center, plus senior housing and a community welcoming center on the southern portion of the property.

Plans ultimately call for 4,800 residential units, with 20% set aside at reduced rents for people with lower incomes. The developers also are required to pay $25 million toward expansion of nearby schools once they’ve completed 3 million square feet of construction.

At the first of three committee hearings this week, local Ald. Sophia King (4th) said the massive project will bring “billions of economic development dollars into our city, back into our tax base.”

She credited the Michael Reese Advisory Committee for “a lot of the community benefits that you see.” That includes “20% on-site affordable housing,” a senior building, a $25 million commitment for education and a “20% write-down on 10% of all the retail” for local businesses.

“We’re gonna have a Bronzeville welcoming center/digital museum which will pay homage to the Bronzeville community, the storied history that’s there that has impacted the world. We’ll be able to have people come in locally and world-wide to see that

“There’s design guidelines throughout the entire development that will make sure that we pay homage to Bronzeville and the Michael Reese site. Each sub-area has to at least include $25,000 to that. We’re also making sure that the community center is sustainable. There’s 50-cent impact fee that will go to the operating costs for that.”

King said the project has literally been a labor of love.

“That first building to the north of Prairie Shores — that was my first home in Chicago. So, it’s kind of full-circle. That was about 35 years ago. And both of my kids were born at Michael Reese. So, it’s personal — not only to me, but obviously to the community,” King said.

The infrastructure work must be designed, engineered and completed to city standards within three years at a cost of no more than $60 million. If the final tally is higher, GRIT Chicago must eat those costs.

Chicago taxpayers will also be asked to bankroll $31 million to remove hazardous waste left behind by a radium processing plant that had been on the northern end of the property more than 100 years ago. That money is expected to come from a nearby tax increment financing district.

Deputy Planning and Development Commissioner Tim Jeffries has argued new roads are needed for a campus “fairly disconnected from the rest of the grid” with few access points.

“This configuration may have been appropriate at one point — especially for a closed campus like Michael Reese. But it’s just not consistent with the requirements of modern development,” he said.

Bronzeville Lakefront project is the “largest and only multi-billion- dollar private project planned in a minority community,” Jeffries said.

“The project and the investment it represents, however, cannot proceed without the basic infrastructure necessary for development to occur. This agreement would provide this critical and required first step.”

Thirteen years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley convinced the City Council to borrow $85 million to purchase the site of the shuttered hospital to pave the way for construction of an Olympic Village. But it never was built, and the price of the property rose to $91 million after the city’s stunning first-round knockout in its bid for the 2016 Summer Games.

When the property was not unloaded to private developers within five years, the price rose to $96 million and the city was forced to start making payments on the loan.

Chicago taxpayers had been assured there was no chance of that happening, as top mayoral aides said they were certain Chicago would host the 2016 Olympics — and even if the city didn’t, developers surely would gobble up the land.

Daley and his team turned out to be wrong on both counts. Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. And the Michael Reese property — cleared of all buildings except the 72,800 square-foot Singer Pavilion — has remained vacant and a drain on the city’s taxpayers.

That financial albatross has now been replaced by the dream of a brighter future — never mind that the ambitious project will take at least 20 years to build.

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