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Could a new mega-development be headed to downtown Chicago’s south side? The answer is: maybe. Developers of the project – called ONE Central Chicago – pitched a revised proposal to Chicago’s third ward community in January 2021. 

Plans have been noodled for the sprawling 32-acre development since 2019, and this latest set of changes include naming a new lead architecture firm. 

Plans for the site at ONE Central Chicago in Near South Side
Rendering of the future site of ONE Central Chicago. Image: Landmark Development/Gensler.

Check out the size of that area – it’s huge, taking the term “mega-development” to a whole new level. 

If approved, it would be built over the existing Metra rail yard. Across the street from Soldier Field, between McCormick Place and the Museum Campus, the Near South Side location is just a stone’s throw from the heart of downtown. 

Mega Planning Mode 

The Developer’s Dream 

The list of projects on the developer’s wishlist for ONE Central Chicago include:

  • 9,050 new residential units, including rental apartments and privately-owned condominiums 
  • 9.45 million square feet of commercial/office space 
  • 4.5 acres for a waterfront park
  • 1.5 million square feet of retail space
  • 1.5 million square feet of hotel space
  • 350,000 square feet of event space
  • 3,500 parking stalls
  • a $3.8 billion transportation center for Metra and Amtrak trains, plus a spur line to the CTA Red Line

Building the ONE Central Chicago mega-development would require two major phases, and span a couple of decades (yes, I’m talking upwards of 20 years) to ultimately complete.  

Phase One, Then Phase Two 

The first phase is a $3.8 billion “civic build.” Essentially, this would be for the foundational bones of the project. It includes the base platform for the entire site, plus a multi-modal transportation center, hospitality and retail districts, mid-rise residential buildings and 3,500 parking stalls. 

Plans for the site of ONE Central Chicago
Phase one, the civic build, planned for ONE Central Chicago. Image: Landmark Development/Gensler.

The second phase is a $16 billion “vertical build.” And when they say vertical, they mean vertical! This skyline-changing development includes a major expansion of commercial, hospitality, and high-rise residential sites, as well as the welcome center. 

A look at the second phase of ONE Central Chicago
Phase two, the vertical build, planned for ONE Central Chicago. Image: Landmark Development/Gensler.

And, a Dose of Reality 

While the scale and big picture ideas of the project are impressive, the specific details are still rather vague. For that reason, it seems this development is having a bit of trouble finding any major support – yet. 

Since it’s reliant on partial public funding to even start, the scrutiny this development is facing is not going away any time soon. 

According to reports in Crain’s Chicago and other newspapers, both Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot seem to be dubious about the whole thing, especially the amount of public funding. The third ward Alderman Pat Dowell has hosted presentations for the developers with an open mind, but so far she seems indifferent and wants to hear more public input. 

There is also no sign of interest from Amtrak, Metra or CTA for the proposed transit hub.

In light of increasing economic strains put on the State of Illinois and City of Chicago due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not surprising that ONE Central Chicago has several major barriers ahead before they could ever possibly move their plans forward.

However – as the planning phase moves forward, I’ve got to believe something fantastic will emerge here. It’s just a matter of what exactly.

The Daring Developers 

This ambitious project is spearheaded by Landmark Development

And, they have step one already done. In a deal that included initial approval from the State of Illinois for some public funding, they purchased the air rights from Metra for the space over the rail yards. This investment makes the build of the base platform over the rail yard possible. 

Wisconsin-based Landmark Development is best known for their work on professional sports stadiums, including Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Minnesota’s brand-new US Bank Stadium. However, their portfolio also has an extensive mix of health care, commercial, hospitality, entertainment and residential developments. 

In the ONE Central Chicago proposal package, there are several investors, advisors and design firms involved. However, the lead architect listed for this project seems to be the biggest change made since the initial announcement in 2019.  

A New Lead Design Team 

The master plan design and lead architect team is now Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm. They have plenty of experience with past and current massive projects in Chicago:

  • Redevelopment of Navy Pier
  • New McCormick Place hotel
  • Restoration of the old Chicago Post Office
  • Master plan design for the Southbridge mega-development
  • Design of a life science building, the first project of Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards mega-development
Gensler’s design for a life science building
Gensler’s design for a life science building, for developer Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards mega-development site. Image: Sterling Bay/Gensler.

Near South Side Decade of Change

The South Loop is adjacent to the area where ONE Central Chicago would be located, within the bounds of the greater Near South Side. This area has seen significant growth for over a decade. Big box stores, cool diverse restaurants, and several luxury residences have successfully replaced the blighted buildings and decaying warehouses of the past. 

Notable new luxury apartment buildings in the South Loop include The Paragon, Aspire and 76-story residential skyscraper NEMA Chicago. In another South Loop mega-development (along the south branch of the Chicago River) you’ll find two popular new luxury apartment towers: The Cooper and Alta Grand Central.   

There is also infrastructure taking root at another mega-development along Clark Street, south of Roosevelt, dubbed “The 78.”  This will add another new neighborhood to the greater Near South Side area. Initial construction there is already well underway.

A look at NEMA Chicago in Chicago's South Loop
NEMA Chicago apartments soar above the skyscrapers changing the Chicago skyline in the city’s South Loop neighborhood.

One Suggestion for ONE Central Chicago

Since plans for ONE Central Chicago keep changing, I’m gonna go ahead and make a suggestion. Hey developers, listen up! 

In a neighborhood that already has everything current residents need, what could the developers of ONE Central Chicago add to possibly push this through? In my opinion, the answer is a casino. 

Chicago has considered bringing legal gambling within the city limits for a long time, but “not-in-my-backyard” attitudes have prevailed so far. However, times are a-changin’. In fact, just last summer Mayor Lightfoot asked developers to submit pitches for Chicago’s first casino. 

So, why do I think the ONE Central Chicago development would be an ideal location for a casino? Here are some good reasons:

  1. Jobs: Of course, there would be new jobs for locals.  
  1. Location: Proximity to high-income tourist destinations like McCormick Place and Soldier Field. 
  1. Entertainment Need: There’s a lack of off-campus entertainment and event venues near McCormick Place. 
  1. Tourist Funded: Target audience of high-income tourists, not financially vulnerable locals. 
  1. Post-Covid Risk: Office building vacancies are facing an unpredictable future

I think a casino would work best in this sliver of the Near South Side. The overall chances for this mega development to move forward might also improve if they try another revision. Perhaps the third time’s the charm?

A map of the neighborhood around ONE Central Chicago
Area map around the ONE Central Chicago development and the city’s greater Near South Side.

One Central Chicago’s Future  

With the world a little sideways at the moment, I’m almost certain the plans for ONE Central Chicago will continue to change. I’ll keep my eye on the latest news on Chicago’s newest mega-development and keep you guys updated as new details emerge! 

Blog Author Signature: Sarah
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