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6 stories that will reshape Chicago in 2019

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From Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express to Uptown’s entertainment renaissance, here’s what to expect in 2019

Will the Barack Obama Presidential Center break ground in 2019 as planned, or will a lawsuit complicate plans?
Obama Foundation

While 2018 was busy year for Chicago—full of high-profile reveals, groundbreakings, and preservation stories—2019 is shaping up to be equally as exciting.

The year ahead has a lot line with a new mayor taking the reins from Rahm Emanuel. Meanwhile many questions will be answered such as the legality of the Obama Center in Jackson Park, the stalled redevelopment of former Chicago Spire site, and the status of the threatened Thompson Center.

Will Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express move forward or remain on the drawing board as a science fiction-inspired pipe dream? Here are seven big stories Chicagoans should be following in 2019.


Mayoral election

Last fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent shockwaves through Chicago with the surprise announcement that he will not seek a third term in 2019. Instead, the polarizing politician’s successor will have a unique opportunity to reshape the both city’s political and physical landscape.

Emanuel certainly left his mark on the city over the past eights years—prioritizing downtown corporate relocations, boosting tourism, and pushing for new cultural attractions like the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the ill-fated Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and the upcoming Obama Presidential Center (more on that below).

Under Emanuel’s tenure, Chicago increased its downtown zoning boundaries, expanded transit-oriented development (TOD) rules, rezoned outdated manufacturing corridors to allow for massive mixed-use developments like the Lincoln Yards proposal. Will Chicago’s next mayor elect take a similar, staunchly pro-development stance?

Obama Presidential Center

The year ahead will be an important one for the South Side’s proposed Barack Obama Presidential Center. Aside from losing one of its most vocal and powerful cheerleaders in Rahm Emanuel, the $500 million project is currently at the center of a federal review and lawsuit from a nonprofit park advocacy group hoping to challenge the center’s location in Jackson Park.

The latter is set to begin oral arguments next month. Meanwhile, the Obama Foundation says it hopes to break ground on the Tod Williams Billie Tsien-designed complex in the spring.

A rendering of an electric passenger pod for the X Line O’Hare Express.
The Boring Company

O’Hare Express “X Line”

Another Emanuel-supported project—a proposed high-speed transportation system linking Chicago’s downtown to O’Hare International Airport—will faces an uncertain future in 2019.

Designed by Elon Musk’s the Boring Company, Chicago’s “X Line” hopes to whisk passengers through a tunnel at 150 mph via automated “electric skates.” Musk demonstrated a 1.1-mile test tunnel in California to Chicago officials last month, but the product more closely resembled a private highway for modified Tesla cars than a mass transit system.

In addition to the technological challenges, some remain skeptical of the Boring Company’s claims that is can build the privately-financed system for less than $1 billion—an estimate that many see as remarkably cheap. The futuristic project is currently in the middle of an environmental review. It is expected to go before Chicago’s City Council for review prior to Emanuel departing office in May.

O’Hare Global Terminal

In other O’Hare-related news, the year ahead will see some of the planet’s top architects compete to design the $8.5 billion global terminal plus two satellite terminals. Five teams headed by architectural heavyweights Santiago Calatrava, Studio Gang, Foster + Partners, Fentress Architects, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill are expected to reveal their respective designs in the coming months.

City officials will showcase models from each team at various locations throughout the city with the goal of collecting public feedback. The multiphase undertaking represents O’Hare’s first major overhaul in 25 years and is expected to take a decade to complete.

A rendering of 400 N. Lake Drive.
Related Midwest

400 N. Lake Shore Drive redesign

In 2018 developer Related Midwest unveiled its highly anticipated design for the site of the failed Chicago Spire only to have its plan unceremoniously blocked by downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly several months later. The elected official provided a list of steps that the two-tower proposal must take such as removing its hotel component, reducing the size of its podium, and restricting pedestrian access near adjacent townhouses.

While Related said it will “continue to collaborate with all stakeholders to refine our plan and move forward with a design that realizes the potential of this site,” it’s unclear how much of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design will change. The company hoped to break ground on the 400 N. Lake Shore Drive project in the coming summer.

Fate of the Thompson Center

Chicago celebrated a number of notable preservation wins in 2018 including the state’s decision to postpone the sale of architect Helmut Jahn’s controversial Thompson Center. The fate of the Loop’s postmodern “starship,” however, is far from certain.

With a new mayor and governor on the way and the building’s deferred maintenance bill snowballing out of control, the Thompson Center will continue to be the focus of a high-states preservation battle in 2019 and a chance for Chicago to protect its postmodern legacy.

A rendering of the restored Uptown Theatre
Lamar Johnson Collaborative

Uptown’s entertainment renaissance

Already home to legendary performance venues like the Riviera Theater, Aragon Ballroom, and the Green Mill, Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood is poised to become and even bigger hub for live entertainment in 2019. Notable moves include indie music venue Double Door setting up shop in the historic Wilson Theatre as well as new Uptown homes for the Timeline Theatre and the Baton drag lounge.

Also in 2019, work on the long-awaited restoration of the landmarked Uptown Theater is expected to begin. The project will bring the giant 1925 Spanish Baroque Revival-style structure back to its former grandeur and increase capacity from 4,100 to 5,800 people.