North Branch development boom kicks into high gear at site presented to Amazon

Chicago Sun Times | January 26, 2018

By: Fran Spielman

A development boom on previously protected industrial land in Chicago's North Branch Corridor kicks into high gear Thursday in a way that could boost the city's bid to attract Amazon's second North American headquarters. 

The City Council's Zoning Committee granted sweeping zoning approval for a massive development - with 4.5 acres of open space and a picturesque walkway along the Chicago River - on a site owned by Tribune Media at 640 - 740 W. Chicago Ave. 

The site is one of 10 in the city and suburbs presented to Amazon as part of the Chicago area's $2.25 billion bid for the 50,000 - job economic development prize known as "HQ2."

Without Amazon, as many as 6,000 people could ultimately work and 800 of them could live in the development. With Amazon, the sky's the limit. 

Although it could be perfect fit, Riverside Investment and Development CEO John O'Donnell stressed that financing for and success of the project is "not at all" dependent on Amazon. 

"Chicago is a great place for these type of businesses. That's evident by the interest of Google and Apple and Amazon. It doesn't necessarily have to be [Amazon]. We never counted on them at all. We counted on other types of tenants eventually coming here," O'Donnell said.

We've built a lot of office buildings. We've never had a specific tenant as a requirement. We won't build until we find one. But we will find one - eventually." 

O'Donnell is uniquely positioned to get two bites at the Amazon apple. He's also part of the development team for the Old Main Post Office, which is another site presented to Amazon.

"They're two completely different opportunities. One is a very urban site. One is a campus opportunity. In Seattle, they're in a very urban setting. However, many of the other high-tech firms are in campuses," O'Donnell said. 

"The Tribune property is probably unique in the country where you have available - in the center of the city, central to all of these emerging neighborhoods - 40 acres. That's pretty unique." 

A 310 - unit residential tower, three shorter office buildings with 1.2 million square feet of commercial space and 4.5 acres of open space with a picturesque walkway along the Chicago River are planned on the coveted riverfront site.

The plan calls for developers to demolish a vacant industrial building once used as a Tribune distribution center.

The office building and residential tower, with parking for 540 vehicles and 50 bikes, would be built first. Two more office buildings would follow once tenants are lined up and leases are signed. 

To alleviate the strain on local infrastructure, Riverside plans to invest $1 million in off-site traffic signal improvements. They include the intersections of Ogden and Milwaukee and Halsted and Chicago that would link the Tribune printing plant to the development site.

The developer also plans to run shuttle buses to CTA stations, Union Station and the Ogilvie Transportation Center. 

"With Tribune Media, our partner, owning land that we are not party to, they are enabling us to use their land for the shuttle buses to keep them off the street grid. That's going to alleviate a lot of the traffic problems that currently exist in that area...They're giving us a license to use that to shuttle people off the street so they don't have to get involved in traffic and they can get to Ogilvie very quickly," he said. 

Local Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) made no bones about it: He's "praying and hoping" that Amazon chooses the Tribune Media site. 

"No offense to the alderman over there with Finkl Steel, but we're moving faster than you, man. Finkl is taking too long. They should come over here, because it's hot and it's happening," Burnett said.