A powerful city commission recommended a muscular long-term vision for central Chicago yesterday afternoon, paving the way for a taller and denser South Loop despite objections from area residents.
The plan includes nearly $6 billion in transportation projects, including $1.5 billion in upgrades to Chicago Transit Authority signals and capacity and $360 million in renovations at four CTA stations.
It also includes more than $281 million in urban-design projects, including $75 million in open-space improvements at Northerly Island Park.
And that's just through 2012, the first of three phases. By 2020, the plan includes $15.5 billion in total projects.
The Central Area Action Plan is not binding, but its approval by the Chicago Plan Commission signals significant support for spreading the Loop's design beyond its current borders. Members of the commission, appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley and from the city's public and private sectors, carry far-reaching political influence.
The Action Plan identifies and prioritizes urban-design, open-space and transportation projects in the area bounded by North Avenue on the north, the Stevenson Expressway on the south, Lake Michigan on the east and Halsted Street on the west. It also includes the West Loop area bounded by Halsted Street on the east, Ashland Avenue on the west, Lake Street on the north and the Eisenhower Expressway on the south.
Just two members of the public spoke against it yesterday afternoon. But one, South Loop resident Enrique G. Perez, told commissioners there are plenty of concerns about tall buildings and higher-density development straining resources, and other changes that would "fundamentally change the character of the South Loop and the quality of life for its residents."
"There is also a social-justice problem," Perez told the commission, pointing to lower-income areas of Chicago that would welcome $15.5 billion for struggling residents.
Perez later said he also had problems with the public-comment process for the plan.
In an interview outside City Council chambers, he said it was unfair for city officials to hold the meeting in the middle of a workday, at 1 p.m., then limit him to three minutes to present his concerns.
City officials held a series of community meetings before the Plan Commission voted on it, and they postponed yesterday's meeting from a July date to allow for more comprehensive public comment.
But Perez, who supported the postponement and attended several of the community meetings, says city officials did not adequately change the plan to reflect residents' concerns.
Benet Haller, director of urban design and planning at the city, acknowledges that $15.5 billion is "a big number, and he emphasized that the plan, which includes a financial analysis of funding sources, is an overall vision for the city's core neighborhoods.
"The function of this plan is very much a guide toward that future development," he told commissioners.
Commissioners agreed that the plan is long on ambition.
Among other things, the plan also provides $750 million for the Central Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, a multibillion-dollar project announced in 2003 that includes 25 new roadway overpasses and underpasses, as well as projects for Metra, Amtrak and city railways.
Ald. Pat Dowell (D-3), who represents part of the South Loop, says the plan presents some opportunities for her district, but that city officials must do more to tackle issues such as parking, already a concern in the area.
"We're going to have to roll up our sleeves," Dowell says.
Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.