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City Planners: Benefits Of 'One Central' Megadevelopment Might Be Overblown

Planning officials say current zoning laws allow for 4.7 million square feet of development in the area and not the imagined 20 million.

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Officials from the Department of Planning and Development answer questions from South Loop residents about current developer rights over the Metra Electric tracks south of downtown.

Officials from the Department of Planning and Development answer questions from South Loop residents about current developer rights over the Metra Electric tracks south of downtown.

Linda Lutton/WBEZ

City officials told the public Monday night that enormous economic benefits projected for the proposed One Central megadevelopment may be significantly overstated.

One Central — which Wisconsin-based developer Bob Dunn of Landmark Development has proposed to build over the Metra tracks near Soldier Field — assumes 20 million square feet of new housing, commercial and hotel space.

But officials with Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development say current zoning restrictions allow for less than a quarter of that to be built. They made their comments at a community meeting Monday evening.

“The development plans appear to be based on assumptions that go far beyond what the site’s current zoning would allow,” said Bob McKenna, an assistant commissioner with the planning department. Current guidelines would permit some 4.7 million square feet to be developed, said McKenna and zoning administrator Patrick Murphey.

A study commissioned by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce showed the One Central development would bring in $120 billion in new tax revenue over the next 40 years and create some 210,000 jobs.

“If all of the economic impacts projected by the study — all of the new jobs, and all of the new tax revenue numbers projected — are based on this inflated 20 million square feet of development, one would have to assume that those economic impact projections are overstated as well,” McKenna said.

Last month, in lightning fashion, Illinois lawmakers approved the broad outlines of a plan for the state to purchase a “transit hub” that would be part of the One Central development — at a suggested cost of $6.5 billion to taxpayers. Money to buy the transit hub is supposed to come from sales tax revenue generated by the development itself.

But planning department officials say if the size of the development is inflated, the projected benefits likely are as well, including projections involving sales tax revenues.

A spokeswoman from Landmark Development said in an email the study was commissioned to give a sense of what was possible. “No matter what program is ultimately defined for the site in partnership with the community, there is no doubt the site can generate tens of billions of dollars more than the $23,000 that is currently generated by the site today,” she wrote.

About 250 residents attended the meeting. They raised concerns about congestion, new skyscrapers obstructing views of the lake and the use of public money to subsidize the transit hub.

“What I would like to know is, does the community want [the transit hub]?” asked one man. “It seems like the developer is the one who wants it.”

South Loop resident Gloria Davis told local Ald. Pat Dowell and planning officials she’s keeping in mind the city’s attempt to shut down a neighborhood grammar school, National Teachers Academy.

“Citizens went to court to stop that. And you need to understand this community is not gonna just stand by and let this happen without taking it all the way,” Davis said to applause.

McKenna and Murphey emphasized that the city has not received any formal plan for One Central. They said they’d only begun conversations with the developer.

Murphey said a private development encompassing 20 million square feet in the area would require full City Council approval. That would make One Central a citywide issue, in the way Lincoln Yards became earlier this year.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and local Ald. Brian Hopkins were cheerleaders for Lincoln Yards, but debate around the One Central development comes as Mayor Lori Lightfoot has questioned subsidies to massive developers, and has said she wants greater accommodations for community concerns.

City Council also has more critics of megadevelopers now. Some sitting aldermen were among the protesters who shut down LaSalle Street when Lincoln Yards and The 78 were approved.

Linda Lutton is WBEZ’s neighborhoods reporter. Follow her @lindalutton.

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