Southeast Side: Will new community rise on old South Works steel site? | WBEZ
Skip to main content


Southeast Side: Will new community rise on old South Works steel site?

The Chicago velodrome is a place where super-light bikes race at lightning speeds around a steep slanted wooden track. It’s on a corner of a sprawling overgrown swath of land along the lake on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

One of the largest steel mills in the country, U.S. Steel’s South Works plant, once stood here. The steel mill was the lifeblood of the community. In its heyday it employed 20,000 people and its blast furnaces lit up the sky. But like mills all over the Midwest, South Works struggled through the 1980s to compete with overseas producers. In 1992, South Works was shut down and then demolished.

This is lakefront property. It’s huge, bigger than the Loop. No surprise then that developer Dan McCaffery plans to create practically a new city here: more than 13,000 homes, upscale shopping, a marina, a scientific research park, wind turbines, a charter school.

“When you think about the scale, and the fact that it’s been 25 years since that community was basically abandoned, with respect to a job-maker this thing has got enormous potential consequences,” McCaffery said.

The site starts just south of Rainbow Beach at 79th Street. It is surrounded by a ribbon of tall chain link fence adorned with colorful banners showing the manicured gardens, chic apartments and happy people that the developers promise will materialize soon.

But they’ve been talking about it for more than a decade, and so far the most concrete improvement is a new extension of Lake Shore Drive stretching for 10 blocks through the middle of the site. The velodrome, which isn't part of the McCaffery development, is at the southern end.

Emanuele Bianchi is an Italian immigrant, bike fanatic and the driving force behind the velodrome. He’s assembled a team of dedicated riders, and on a Saturday in May he rides a converted German motorbike to pace them.

Local residents are a little perplexed by the velodrome. Since the steel mill closed, this area has fallen on hard times. Everywhere you look are overgrown empty lots and vacant boarded-up buildings, many of them scarred by fire.

Locals do not typically ride expensive bikes or wear pricey, tight-fitting cycling outfits. Some enjoy watching the velodrome races. Others see the velodrome as an intrusion, an effort to bring a new class of people to the Southeast Side. It’s the way many people here feel about Lakeside Development as a whole.

Will it bring new jobs and opportunities for local residents, or will it be for other people, a separate and more upscale city where current residents won’t feel welcome?

Mike Medrano grew up and still lives practically across the street from the site. “If it’s nice, shiny and new, I don’t see why they’d include us,” Medrano said. “They’ve never included us in any particular way before, so, you don’t have enough people with the education to have the jobs to afford to buy the houses out here.”

Medrano’s neighbor Maura Barajas feels the same way. Her son translated. “The people that are richer are going to advance more than the ones that are in the middle.”

“Anyone that feels they haven’t been involved or haven’t been consulted just hasn’t shown up,” McCaffery said. “Every community you go into you could hold 150 meetings, at the 151 meeting someone will say, ‘I wasn’t consulted.’”

McCaffery’s staff leads frequent tours of the site. And on a cold spring day, project manager Nasutsa Mabwa led a large group on one such tour, telling them: “There’s a lot of passion here, it means a lot to many people, so we’re not just the big bad developer coming in to push things around, we really are here to stay and we’re working really hard to make sure we listen and involve a lot of different groups and really understand how we can be a good partner and move things forward.”

The bus stopped at the north end of the site and people climbed out to admire the view of downtown. Area resident Evelyn Johnson pulled her coat tight against the wind. “My son was eight when I started working at U.S. Steel,"she said. "He’s 48 now. If they start a new development, I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of this….It would improve the neighborhood quite a bit, for housing primarily, and then they are going to put in Crate and Barrels, some of the stores they have in the Loop or suburban areas. I think it would be quite a nice development.”

Karen Roothan skipped the tour because she’s already been on the site plenty. Since moving here 13 years ago and being labeled the dirty hippie by some neighbors, Roothan has worked hard to build community gardens and cultivate relationships. “Meow, oh you’re not speaking to me today Mr. Cat, huh? He likes to live in my garage in the winter,” Roothan laughed. “Now he pretends he doesn’t know me. So these are native perennials here, plus a little blown in trash.”

Roothan thinks Lakeside will uproot people like her.

 “Are we going to cater to rich people who don’t even live here," she asked, "or are we going to cater to poor people and moderate income people who already live here and are trying to cope? Does it make sense to build a lot of new houses when you have vacant buildings everywhere?”

Bianchi, the Italian bicyclist, thinks new development could have big ripple effects. He’d love to see a world-class indoor velodrome on the site. But he’s starting to get discouraged: “Unfortunately it won’t be easily financed because it looks like it’s extremely hard to find the companies or institutions that are willing to invest in sports, especially cycling. Everybody says, ‘Oh yeah we can help you but you’ve got to find the money.’”

The biggest question facing Lakeside may not be what effect it will have on residents, but whether it will be built at all. Financing still has not been obtained for even phase one of construction. The city is building a new park along the lakefront, sidewalks and sewers. But a promised $98 million tax subsidy won’t kick in until retail space is leased. McCaffery thinks things will really pick up once the Lake Shore Drive extension opens. That’s scheduled for September.

Get the flash player here:

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.