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Departing planning commissioner regrets lack of progress on South Works, Reese sites

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Chicago Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman announced his retirement on Monday

A rendering of “Burnham Lakefront” proposal for the Michael Reese Hospital site, released during Chicago’s bid for Amazon HQ2.
Rendering courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

After presiding over one the most significant periods of downtown expansion in the city’s history, Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) Commissioner David Reifman is retiring from the position that he’s held for the past four years. The announcement, first reported the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday evening, comes just two weeks before Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel departs and Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot is set to take office.

Reifman told the newspaper he is proud of the large-scale developments he and Emanuel spearheaded—including megaprojects such as Lincoln Yards and The 78—as well as the investments made in small businesses on the city’s West and South sides through Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. The retiring commissioner’s only regrets? A lack of progress redeveloping the sprawling South Works and former Michael Reese sites.

Located on the city’s Far South Side, the 440-acre South Works site has been vacant since U.S. Steel closed its lakefront plant in 1992. Although a group of developers came to the city with an ambitious proposal to build 20,000 modular homes on the parcel, the plan fell apart roughly one year ago. U.S. Steel still owns the property and Reifman says the future proposals will need to be “realistic” about the environmental issues facing the site.

A conceptual rendering of the failed South Works masterplan.
Courtesy Barcelona Housing Systems

Meanwhile, a similar lack of progress has been made on the 49-acre former Michael Reese parcel on the city’s Near South Side. Vacant since 2009 and set aside to serve as the Olympic village for the city’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 summer games, the city-owned site near Bronzeville landed a private master developer in 2017 and was envisioned as a 5 million square mixed-use campus during that year’s Amazon HQ2 frenzy.

Moving forward, Reifman told the Sun-Times that the Michael Reese project would need to embrace a variety of uses to be successful. An interesting takeaway from the interview is the possibility of a long-term plan to potentially build a professional soccer stadium on the site that could become the future home of the Chicago Fire.

The vacant Michael Reese Hospital site south of McCormick Place.
Courtesy of the City of Chicago

The departing DPD boss didn’t want to weigh-in on the specifics of the recently announced One Central megadevelopment and its developers’ desire to reach a $3.B tax deal with the State of Illinois. Reifman did, however, say the idea “validates the general approach we took for how to make large projects work, which is put the burden on the developer to figure out how to front-fund. And allow for some re-payment through the revenues the project generates.”

The city adopted a similar “front-fund” approach to reimburse the developers of Lincoln Yards and The 78 for upcoming infrastructure improvements using tax-increment financing (TIF)—a sometimes controversial practice the commissioner continues to defend.

Reifman also declined to comment on his next career move although a return to the private sector seems pretty likely. He told the Sun-Times that he plans to remain “heavily involved in issues of urban development,” but will avoid working on projects with which he had direct involvement during his time at City Hall.