Sterling Bay's Lincoln Yards South Plan Wins Over Some Local Residents, But A Long Road Lies Ahead
Sterling Bay won some fans Tuesday night as it unveiled its vision for the southern portion of a development expected to eventually transform a once industrial slice of the North Side into a forest of commercial and residential skyscrapers.
The company’s initial efforts in 2018 to build public support for its $6B Lincoln Yards proposal fell flat. Many area residents then expressed unease with plans, now ditched, to include a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and a massive entertainment complex run by Live Nation. The city approved a somewhat scaled-down version of the development in 2019, just before Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Lincoln Yards critic, took office.
Local stakeholders remain concerned about the development’s long-term impact, and whether something on its scale is a good fit for the 55-acre wedge of land between the Bucktown and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. But the models and drawings for the first phase, a collection of mixed-use buildings on Lincoln Yards’ southern end, along with new parkland, seemed to soothe concerns the area was about to be swamped.
“In the very beginning, the soccer stadium felt overwhelming, but I like the scale of this, and how it’s integrated into the area,” said Colette Rodon-Horof, a neighborhood resident and president of a local kitchen, bath and design firm who attended Sterling Bay’s open house event. “I also appreciate that the buildings have an urban feel, and don’t look suburban at all.”
Officials from the development team say they want to finish this section, dubbed the Steelyard and just north of North Avenue along the North Branch of the Chicago River, by 2025. If all goes as planned, by 2024 the developer will add commercial and residential buildings totaling more than 800K SF. That includes commercial structures at 1685 North Throop St., and other residences, all surrounding an entertainment complex, as well as a promenade that will include restaurant and café space located just above street-level retail. A park will line the new section just north of the residences.
“This will essentially create a new mini-neighborhood,” said HPA Architecture associate partner John Mitchell.
By 2025, Sterling Bay also plans to expand the park all the way to the river, adding soccer fields, a new riverwalk and boating facilities, including a water taxi service to downtown, and an eastward extension into Lincoln Yards of The 606, a running and biking trail that now terminates on the other side of the Kennedy Expressway.
But the plans unveiled Tuesday night are just a small portion of the overall vision approved in 2019. A model displayed during the open house showed this southern section of the 55-acre site in bright red, orange and green. A far vaster collection of buildings still in the conceptual stage, both office and residential, were colored light blue and gray, and they stretched away to the north almost up to Fullerton Avenue.
Local residents and stakeholders still worry that kind of development, which could total up to 14.5M SF, much of it on the former site of Finkl Steel, could force out the many other industrial and manufacturing companies still in the neighborhood, including Ozinga, a family-owned concrete and materials firm, O’Brien Metal, Prairie Material and Howe Corp., an icemaker manufacturer.
According to Jonathan Snyder, executive director of North Branch Works, a nonprofit that promotes economic development along the north branch of the Chicago River, city data shows that in 2017, there were 15,742 industrial jobs in the North Branch Industrial Corridor, a key source of employment for Chicagoans without college degrees.
“Unfortunately, the totals have not been updated since then, but many industrial businesses remained open and added employees during the pandemic,” he said. “I would not be surprised if this number has increased in the interim.”
Snyder added that he doesn’t want to turn back the clock. Ideally, the city will help preserve the existing light manufacturing jobs while Sterling Bay creates an innovation hub at Lincoln Yards that also provides well-paying positions.
“I don’t want another steel manufacturer to move in,” he said. “That isn’t what the area was moving toward.”
Sterling Bay’s 2020 announcement that it would focus on attracting life sciences firms and laboratories to Lincoln Yards was a pleasant surprise, Snyder said, as it would preserve the surrounding area’s role as a jobs engine for Chicagoans without advanced degrees.
There were about 85,000 life sciences jobs in the state as of 2019, according to the Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization, and around 40% of those jobs only required a high school diploma or GED.
The first building completed at Lincoln Yards will be Ally at 1229 West Concord, a 320K SF building dedicated to life sciences. Sterling Bay broke ground on the project in October and plans to complete it by 2023. It also this year hired Dr. Suzet McKinney, the former CEO of the Illinois Medical District, as its new life sciences chief.
Snyder originally opposed the 2019 approval of a $900M, 168-acre tax increment financing district designed for Lincoln Yards, but he’s now in a position to closely monitor how Sterling Bay’s plans unfold. He sits on the development’s 14-member Community Advisory Council, a group of community members and experts created by Lightfoot to ensure transparency as more detailed plans take shape.
CAC members include Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie, and others from local neighborhood groups such as the Bucktown Community Organization and Lincoln Central Association, as well as architects and urban planning experts.
Snyder said a lot of decisions lie ahead. They include whether or not to add bus lines or other transportation options so workers can get to and from the site without relying on cars. But he’s also confident that with the development evolving in multiple phases, the CAC will have an impact.
“This is going to occur over 10 to 15 years, so we will have time to have those conversations,” he said.
43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith, who represents much of Lincoln Park just to the east, attended the open house, and she said she still wants to see more space devoted to parks and to ensure it’s all open to the public. She pointed out that Lakeshore East, a master-planned community downtown with nearly 15,000 residents, is much smaller than the projected size of Lincoln Yards, but has its own 4.6-acre park and is adjacent to the lakefront, Grant Park and Maggie Daley Park.
Sarah Hamilton, a spokesperson for Sterling Bay, said Lincoln Yards will create over 21 new acres of open space, including more than a mile of new, publicly accessible riverwalk and 11 contiguous acres of park space.
“As mandated by the Planned Development, passed by the city in 2019, the park space will be open to everyone and Sterling Bay will operate the parks in a manner consistent with the practices of the Chicago Park District, offering the use of this park space for free and open play, organized league play and special events,” she added.
But Smith maintains the wedge of land along the river will be too dense.
“The area [for Lincoln Yards] is not sufficient to serve the 50,000 people who are to live and work there,” she said. “This area would be an unconnected island.”