Debate haunts development of last piece of river land

By The Columbia Chronicle

Construction on the last undeveloped plot of land along the downtown banks of the Chicago River will begin March 2013, despite concerns regarding traffic safety and population density in the area.

Wolf Point, a 4-acre plot of land along the river near the Merchandise Mart, 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza, will become home to two office buildings and a residential tower, according to Greg Van Schaack, senior vice president of Hines Interests L.P. and co-developer of the project.

“Wolf Point is an obvious site to develop at,” Van Schaack said. “It is the last substantial vacant site in the central business district. These buildings will bring in substantiable revenue for downtown.”

Van Schaack said the buildings will occupy 22 percent of the land and the remaining area will become an extension of the Chicago Riverwalk and public gathering places.

Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) said he supports the project because he believes it will generate $1 billion in private revenue. He said it will not receive public funding.

“This project will bring in nearly $40 million in real estate taxes alone,” Reilly said. “After hearing about what [Hines] had planned, I wanted to ensure that this project would be the best use of the last vacant plot of land along the river.”

According to Luay Aboona, the principal engineer at feasibility study firm Kenig, Lindgren, O’Hara, Aboona Inc., which is investigating congestion in the area, Wolf Point will include sidewalks on surrounding streets, multiple bike lanes on Orleans and Wells streets and restricted truck access to prevent congestion.

KLOA found that intersections would need to be remapped to include more turn lanes and traffic signals to reduce congestion in the area, Aboona said.

According to Ellen Barry, president of Friends of Wolf Point, a community group monitoring the area, her organization is  not only concerned about  traffic but also the project’s design. She said Hines should make its plans available to the public.

“We are concerned about the density of the downtown area,” Barry said. “If you put too many buildings too close to each other, the area will become a constant gridlock.”

She said the river traffic may also increase around Wolf Point, because if residents own boats, that could threaten smaller vessels like kayakers and water taxis.

Barry said FOWP hired its own contractor, Sam Schwartz Engineering, to re-examine KLOA’s traffic study. She added her group believes there should be outside observation to ensure KLOA’s findings are available to the public.

“It’s about a question of quality of life,” Barry said. “I have seen this area of downtown grow, and it’s expanding rapidly. What we are asking for is a more  transparent process.”