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Light rail, new park in discussion for the Chicago River’s evolving North Branch

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The future of the former industrial corridor is taking shape

While development along Chicago’s North Branch Corridor is inevitable, plans to bring green space and mass transit to the area are still being finalized.
Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects

One year after the Chicago Plan Commission voted in favor of a transformative plan to open the city’s 760-acre North Branch Corridor to non-industrial uses, questions regarding future green space and mass transit persist.

Concerns over congestion and a lack of contiguous park space were voiced early and often in the rezoning process and were amplified when Amazon HQ2 fever prompted developer Sterling Bay to release grandiose renderings of its Lincoln Yards megaproject and plans for a 20,000-seat professional soccer stadium.

An image from the city’s 2017 North Branch Draft Framework Plan showing a proposed transitway route.
City of Chicago

In a move that’s sure to please residents, mass transit advocates, and other North Branch developers, Sterling Bay and city officials are exploring a potential rail line to run north-south through Goose Island on existing freight tracks, according to the Chicago Tribune. The solution would follow a route similar to the one earmarked as a future transitway in the city’s 2017 North Branch transportation plan.

Such a North Branch transit route would extend south to Grand Avenue, passing through another future mixed-use megadevelopment known as The River District. The 37-acre project from Tribune Media is looking at the same freight tracks as a potential shuttle bus route to connect 700 W. Chicago Avenue to Chicago’s downtown rail stations.

The light rail news comes just days after Sterling Bay resolved a legal dispute with rail company Iowa Pacific Holdings. The agreement, first reported by Crain’s, would see IPH vacate its Finkl and Goose Island tracks, removing an obstacle standing in the way of the Lincoln Yards project as well as a plan to extend the 606 Trail over the Chicago River.

Meanwhile, two North Side aldermen—Michele Smith of the 43rd Ward and Scott Waguespack the 32nd—spearheaded an independent push to create a singular, 24-acre public park between North Avenue and Cortland Street on the Chicago River’s east bank.

A rendering of the North Branch River Park and Preserve.
Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill Architecture

Although the city requires North Branch developers to set aside a combined 60 acres for open space, the proposed North Branch River Park and Preserve from Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, would be large enough to support the sort of athletic fields that a piecemeal approach may not be able to guarantee.

Smith and Waguespack’s vision recently gained the support of Alderman Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward encapsulates the majority of the redevelopment area. Hopkins, however, is still seeking clarification regarding what the project would cost, reported the Chicago Tribune.

Since the plan would require the city to compensate private landowners for the their properties, and given the huge premiums developers have recently paid for nearby riverfront real estate, securing the funds will be no easy task.

It also remains to be seen if the route of the aforementioned light rail project would complicate the park’s construction.