Guidelines for the redevelopment of the 15-acre North Loop, a project that has been on and off various drawing boards for eight years, were finally approved by the city's planning commission last Monday.
So far the only development set for the six-block renewal zone, which the city will acquire and clear except for some landmark buildings, is a $200 million, 2,100-room Hilton Hotel and Convention Center that will occupy nearly two blocks.
The guidelines, which replace previous efforts to give the entire site and total control to a single developer, call for block-by-block development and open bidding and give broad breakdowns by type of development for one- and two-block areas.
Suggested is office development of 1 1/2 blocks at the western edge of the zone and mixes of retail, office, hotel and residential on the remainder of the land. If followed, this would for the first time place residential units in the heart of Chicago's downtown, an area that since the corncob-shaped Marina Towers were built in the early 1960s has become ringed with living units.
However, of the four developers presently interested in any of the land, only one, Gerrold Wexler, has any intentions to construct residential units. Wexler already is involved in a 1,500-unit development southwest of the Loop.
"The residential component is an important part of the redevelopment of the North Loop," stresses Dennis Harder, North Loop project manager for the city's Department of Planning. "Residents will make the area active 18 hours a day. They will provide a base for a reinvigoration of restaurants, retail stores and cultural activities."
Some 1,400 living units to be located above retail and commercial space are recommended in the guidelines.
The guidelines, which still need city council approval, also suggest 1,200 additional hotel rooms, 4.7 million square feet of office space, 750,000 square feet of retail space, 35,000 square feet of cultural and entertainment space, 120,000 square feet of mixed retail and cultural space and 1,700 parking spaces.
Retail shopping space would be concentrated at the eastern edge, which leapfrogs State St., the Loop's prime shopping area. In addition, existing theaters would be preserved to anchor a "theater role," while shopping corridors would hopefully lure people from offices to the west to major shopping on State St.
That North Loop area people must now cross to get to State Street is a mix of underused or shuttered theaters that feature porno and Kung Fu films, ornate but now shabby historic office buildings -- even of them on the National Register of Historic Places, electronic game rooms, burned-out restaurants, parking garages, stores ranging from disco-blaring electronics shops to an exclusive food shop and a bus station where pimps have preyed on young girls as they arrive from small towns.
The area has so far been unaffected by a surge of new construction and renovation mostly of office space in other parts of the Loop. This activity has helped to keep Chicago's Loop healthy in the daytime. But since the early 1960s, the Loop has lost all of its nightclubs and jazz rooms, most of its fine restaurants and several legitimate theaters.
North Loop redevelopment plans have been stymied in the past by controversy over proposed tax breaks, lack of identity of land owners and attempts to give the entire area without bids or any requirements to single developers as well as vague intentions of city officials -- a problem the new, often sketchy guidelines only slightly alleviate.
"A detailed plan has yet to be prepared that outlines what features and amenities must be provided within each parcel," complained Warren Bacon, an Inland Steel Co. executive who is president of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, a civic group.
The North Loop redevelopment idea has had a quirky history.
The first plan was unveiled in 1978 with developer Arthur Rubloff calling for virtually leveling the area and constructing a mix of office high rises, hotels, luxury housing, theaters, a city library, state office building and parking facilities. Following Jane Byrne's rise to power, that plan was dropped.
Then last July, Mayor Byrne named Charles Shaw, another private real estate developer" for the entire project area. Shaw wanted to remove ground level pedestrian activity by decking over several streets, constructing a 2 1/2-acre garden four stories up and eliminating all retail activity in favor of offices for one entire block. He also sought a 2 percent commission on all development he would line up, a fee that could have brought him an estimated $20 million. After objections from city officials and the public, Shaw withdrew.