Ald. Reilly defers approval of Wolf Point redevelopment plans

12/05/2012 10:00 PM

Igor Studenkov
Contributing Reporter

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It seemed like a done deal. After several contentious community meetings, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) announced that Wolf Point’s developers made enough changes to their plan for the prominent piece of property to satisfy community concerns, allowing the plan to move forward to the Chicago Plan Commission. It was set up to be approved by the city council.

But right before the commission’s Nov. 27 meeting, Reilly withdrew the proposal. In an emailed statement to his constituents, he explained that the plan that developers submitted didn’t reflect the changes he asked for.

Now, Wolf Point’s developers are back in limbo, as they scramble to make the put changes negotiated with Reilly in writing before their next hearing before the Plan Commission.

In an emailed statement, Hines defended itself, stating that the proposal’s language was unintentionally misleading and that they would work to clarify it.

Reilly himself emphasized that the withdrawal is temporary. If negotiations are successful, the plan will be considered at the next Plan Commission meeting, which will take place on Dec. 20.

The Wolf Point developers’ proposal has been contentious from the beginning. The original plan called for three towers — two commercial and one made up of 500 luxury apartments — to replace what is currently a large parking lot. When the proposal was unveiled at a neighborhood meeting in May, residents complained that the development was too dense and expressed concern that it offered little in the way of green space and could adversely affect traffic in the surrounding area.

After months-long negations with Ald. Reilly, the Fulton River District Association and the River North Residents Association, the developers altered the design by expanding the riverwalk, adding more green space and offering additional infrastructure improvements to help ease traffic congestion. But the buildings themselves remained essentially the same.

While many area residents continued to complain about design and density, Reilly felt that the new changes were enough to address the community concerns and agreed to let it move forward.

But the plans that were submitted differed from what was previously negotiated. Most notably, it called for 1,800 hotel rooms and 900 apartments spread out along the three towers. According to the Plan Commission’s original Nov. 27 meeting agenda, the proposal was supposed to call for 1,100 residential units overall and 3.3 million square feet of office space.

The changes caused Reilly to pull the proposal from the agenda. In an official statement to the constituents, he said that, while he believed in the proposal overall, he couldn’t let it be considered without addressing the discrepancy.

“I believe the proposal we have negotiated, to date, is far superior to the original submission,” said Reilly. “Unfortunately, the ‘final’ documents submitted to my office yesterday afternoon did not accurately reflect all of the many changes made to the proposal and also introduced a particular blend of uses never previously discussed with my office or local neighborhood groups. As such, it was clear to me these last important details must be properly vetted before approving this very important, prominent and complex development proposal.”

In a statement sent to Skyline, Wolf Point spokesman Bill Griffin insisted that the discrepancy was an honest misunderstanding. The developer wanted the flexibility to turn offices into hotel rooms and apartments if market conditions called for it. The numbers, Griffin insisted, represented all hotel rooms plus offices that could potentially be converted into hotel rooms, not all the hotel rooms they actually intended to build.

“The development team has always envisioned that the second and third buildings at Wolf Point would be developed as commercial office space but have provided for other uses […] including hotel and residential, to allow for future changes in market conditions,” he said. “The initial methodology created an allowable use of 1,800 hotel rooms as well as 900 apartment units in the south and east towers. The Developer never intended for 1,800 hotel rooms to be built at Wolf Point and has committed to a significantly lower number of rooms.”

The statement didn’t give any details on how many rooms the developer was actually committed to, nor did it explain what might trigger the future changes that would make the number a reality.

Griffin said the developers would continue working with Reilly and community organizations to “refine the language” and make it more acceptable to the city and the community. He expressed confidence that the changes would be worked out before the next Plan Commission meeting.

In his statement, Reilly expressed similar confidence in the speedy resolution.

“I look forward to working with the River North and Fulton River District neighborhood associations to resolve this last point of contention and then move forward with the best development possible for Wolf Point and River North,” he said.

But to the project’s most vocal opponents, none of this is good enough.

Wolf Point Neighbors, a new community group that was formed in response to the original proposal, said the subsequent changes do little to ease their concerns.

“While we believe the concessions made by the developer were a good first step, we don’t believe these changes addressed the primary concerns of community residents regarding density, traffic congestion, aging infrastructure and planned encroachment of the Chicago River,” said Ellen Barry, the group’s president.

The new proposal raised even further concerns. Barry pointed out that prospect of using a hotel was never publicly discussed before, and that having a hotel in the area would bring in even more traffic than what has been previously assumed.

Reilly, Barry insisted, owed the community some answers.

“The alderman and developers need to meet with the community to explain why the residents were told that this would be a ‘mixed use development’ yet never told that a hotel would likely be included,” she said. “In addition, the alderman, Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Economic Development must require that the developer produce a new traffic study that demonstrates the effect of hotel traffic in this congested area, as well as a light and shadow study prior to this development progressing any further in the entitlement process.”

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