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Westward Ho! Chicago's New Downtown Plan

Office development in and around Chicago's famous Loop would continue its shift westward under an $11 billion master plan unveiled by Mayor Richard M. Daley on July 2 — the first planning document for downtown since 1958. The plan recommends that the central business district, whose traditional heart is in the Central Loop, expand toward the West Loop.

A tri-level, multi-billion dollar transportation hub connecting inter-city rail and commuter rail and bus routes also would be built in the West Loop, while the East Loop — now an older but major office market including trophy properties such as the Aon tower and Prudential Plaza — would transition into a primarily residential and cultural district.

The recommendations endorse an existing trend: Six local developers are seeking anchor tenants for proposed West Loop office towers, and their candidates include many East and Central Loop tenants, including Ernst & Young and several law firms. The new transportation center would centralize most in-coming suburban commuter rail lines and bus routes more than one mile west of the East Loop buildings while also offering bus and inter-city rail transfers.

The proposal comes at a time when the downtown office market is battling an 18.6% vacancy rate. The implosion of Arthur Andersen — which is obligated to pay rent on a 580,000 sq. ft. headquarters building in the Central Loop that is now mostly empty — will eventually add more sublease space to the market.

Another Grand Plan

Chicago has a history of executing grand urban plans. Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago resulted in the Wacker Drive, Soldier Field and Union Station landmarks. The 1958 plan led to McCormick Place, Daley Plaza, and the Ohio and Oak Street beaches. The 2002 plan aims to be just as bold. Mayor Daley's preface to the plan proclaims, “This is what we do in Chicago, and now our generation has done it again.”

A public comment period will be held through August and a steering committee — comprised of business, community and public sector leaders — plans to modify and adopt the plan as an advisory document to guide development, zoning and economic incentive distribution for the next 20 years.

Although the plan itself does not address funding issues, its timing was driven by the need to lobby for 2003 federal and 2004 state transportation appropriation funds. The most recent Illinois appropriation in 1999 resulted in $2.1 billion for non-automotive transit projects in the Chicago area.

Private-sector investment will be required for the plan to succeed — particularly the office and mixed-used proposals. “We know that we're going to have to pay for this somehow,” says Jerry Roper, chairman of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. “How we get there is yet to be determined.”

The office-sector recommendations are part of the plan's greater goal to create an urban center that will sustain Chicago as the Midwest's economic and cultural engine. To realize this vision, the City plans to create the “greenest city in America” with the development of a continuous river walk, a neighborhood park system, and private sector-backed streetscape and infrastructure improvements.

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