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Chicago City Council approves sweeping North Branch zoning ordinance

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One of the largest zoning changes in recent history, the move will transform the Chicago River north of downtown

City of Chicago

A piece of legislation designed to let the 760-acre North Branch Industrial Corridor “evolve as a vibrant, mixed-use business center” became an official Chicago city ordinance yesterday. The measure redefines the boundaries of the corridor’s Planned Manufacturing Districts (PMDs) as well as creates mechanisms for developers to pursue non-industrial uses by funding investment in local infrastructure and Chicago’s remaining industrial zones. It passed the Chicago Plan Commission on July 20th and the Joint Committee on Finance and Zoning on July 24th prior to yesterday’s City Council vote.

Co-sponsored by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and 16 aldermen, the move repeals PMD 1 and amends the boundaries of PMDs 2, 3, and 5 to focus primarily around Goose Island—an emerging hub for high-tech offices and manufacturing. The northern segment of the corridor returns to its primarily industrial, pre-PMD zoning while the southern portion changes to DS-5 Downtown Service District and is subject to density bonuses under Chicago’s existing Neighborhood Opportunity system.

An illustration showing just how much the North Branch PMDs have shrunk in size.
Chicago Department of Planning and Development

The ordinance allows non-industrial uses in riverfront areas essentially “released” from the restrictions of the PMDs. A newly created Industrial Corridor System Fund will collect money from developers seeking a change from manufacturing to other uses and reinvest those funds in designated industrial corridors throughout the city. Developers can also pay for greater density through a new North Branch Corridor Bonus fee that will be used to finance transit, open space, and other public improvements.

The ordinance was drafted in accordance with the North Branch Framework land-use strategy adopted by the Chicago Plan Commission in May. That document was refined over the course of a year and included multiple community meetings and other opportunities for the public to weigh-in. Still, lingering concerns among some nearby residents regarding traffic congestion and adequate open space have not gone away.

Though the legislation was approved less than 24 hours ago, we already have some idea what kind of new developments may already be in the works for the re-zoned North Branch. Last week, a plan from Riverside Investment & Development previewed a four-tower, loft-style office and residential campus for the Chicago Tribune facility at 700 W. Chicago Avenue.

Rendering of 700 W. Chicago.
Goettsch Partners

More recently, a conceptual rendering from developer Sterling Bay hinted at new offices, a Metra stop, and an extension of the 606 trail near the former Finkl Steel site at 2011 N. Southport Avenue. As far as the potential for new residences headed to the corridor, Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman described an estimate of 7,500 new units as sounding “very light,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times.

While the North Branch is perhaps the most obvious industrial zone for City Hall to redefine due to its location at the intersection of Lincoln Park, Bucktown, River North, and River West, it is likely not the last such corridor to see an overhaul. The Emanuel Administration’s Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative is expected to revisit other PMDs that have outlived their usefulness as heavy industry continues to naturally migrate to areas that make more logistic and economic sense.