By Robin Amer
Until last year the A. Finkl & Sons Co. furnaces glowed orange at night. The historic steelmaker’s hulking, 113-year-old complex sits on a quarter-mile stretch of Cortland Avenue, tucked into an L-shaped pocket along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
Its buildings sit flush with the sidewalk, nearly pressed against the street. They form a kind of ravine, one made of corrugated metal, faded brick and dirt-smudged panes of glass. It’s a quiet stretch, with street lamps that glow a sulfuric yellow. A lonely car might have breezed past on the darkened street, or the No. 73 bus, ferrying bleary-eyed workers to homes on the West Side of Chicago. But as you approached the river, with its burgundy steel-truss drawbridge, you would first pass an open garage door framed in faded cornflower blue. Inside, third-shift workers poured molten steel into mammoth, witchy cauldrons, just as they had since Anton Finkl moved his factory here in 1902.
But the area is changing. Last summer Finkl & Sons moved its operations — and its 300-plus employees — from the Clybourn Corridor to Chicago’s far Southeast Side. After 112 years in the same location, the company wanted a more modern factory complex more suited to the current manufacturing climate. In September, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that the company plans to demolish the historic complex, and preliminary work toward that end began in early January.
Finkl sits on 28 acres of some of the most valuable real estate in the city, amidst a rebounding residential real estate market. Just a block away to the east, Clybourn Avenue is home to a Crate & Barrel outlet, an upscale gardening supply store, a baby boutique and a Trader Joe’s. Just across the river is Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, with its juice bars, bridal shops and pricey hair salons. A modernist mansion in that neighborhood sold last year for $2.8 million.
Still, this muddy, overgrown stretch of river is home to a handful of manufacturers that have been there almost as long as Finkl. In an era when industry has struggled, these businesses are still thriving. Behind the steelmaker’s mounds of curly metal shavings there are rubber car tires stacked in tight chevron formation at Lakin General Corp. Lazy yellow claw cranes sort mountains of scrap metal down the block at General Iron Industries Inc. On the river’s opposite shore, you’ll find heaps of sand and silt at the Ozinga Brothers Inc. concrete yard and compact cubes of cow hides at Horween Leather Co. The fate of the Finkl site could affect what happens to these businesses, too.
How did this living museum of manufacturing’s bygone days, now sandwiched between luxury shopping in Lincoln Park and trendy bars in Bucktown, come to be? How did the area stay industrial, even as condos and town homes sprung up all around it and land values quadrupled?
It wasn’t by accident. The preservation of industry along the river was the outcome of a previous battle over the area’s use. Chicago, like cities across the Midwest, gradually de-industrialized. By the mid-1980s, the number of factories in the city had dwindled. Clybourn Avenue became a ghost corridor, so empty that thrill-seeking teens drag raced up and down its length. Meanwhile, a condo boom was underway and developers started eying former industrial buildings for residential redevelopment.
A six-story former piano factory at 1872 N. Clybourn Ave. was particularly attractive. The 1895 structure had a deep red brick façade, impossibly high ceilings, a charming smokestack, and even an old-school water tower perched on its roof. In 1985 43rd Ward Alderman Martin Oberman granted developers a zoning variance that allowed them to turn the building into condos.
“That really put these companies on notice,” says Mike Holzer, executive director of North Branch Works, a non-profit that sees itself as the custodian of the area’s manufacturing districts. “They said, ‘How could they do this?!'” Holzer recalls. “This is industrial land!”
Manufacturers feared one zoning exemption would lead to more. And that before long, residential development would crowd out industrial use and make it difficult for them to stay. Residential development forces industrial operators to adhere to stricter environmental codes to protect nearby inhabitants from noise, air, and water pollution. This possibility made industrial business owners question their own commitment to the area. Why should they continue to invest in their facilities if they might be forced out in a matter of months? Wouldn’t it be better, they reasoned, to leave on their own accord, rather than risk closure on someone else’s timeline?
Developers and real estate brokers encouraged this set of assumptions, and assured potential buyers they wouldn’t have to deal with these unsightly factories for much longer.
“Because you as a resident would say, well what about General Iron? What about that stinky industrial operation?” Holzer says, predicting real estate brokers would respond, “Well, they’re on their way out.”
But people wanted to keep their jobs, too. The 115-acre stretch along the river was home to dozens of companies that employed thousands of people. The city was reluctant to let those jobs slip away.
Fearing he had a full-blown crisis on his hands, Oberman declared a moratorium on zoning changes and organized a task force in 1986 to study the issue that was now being called “industrial displacement.” The task force urged the city to create a Protected Manufacturing District, which would strictly prohibit residential use. So piano factories, yes. Piano lofts and other condos, no.
The proposal infuriated real estate developers.
“There was a battle cry of ‘Town houses to the river!” recalls Edwin Eisendrath, who inherited Oberman’s aldermanic seat — and his zoning fight — in 1987. “They said preserving manufacturing, it’s like a zoo. You just want to walk by and see what manufacturing used to be like.”
But Eisendrath saw the issue from the manufacturers’ point of view — and from the perspective of their employees. The city had lost nearly 250,000 manufacturing jobs since 1960, and with those jobs, the money that would circle back through the city. There were 430 people working at Finkl alone.
“I did think, ‘People from the whole city are coming to work here, and going home with money in their pockets to invest in the local bakery and whatever it was in the neighborhoods where they lived,'” Eisendrath says. “And that did matter to me.”
In 1987, Eisendrath wrote a law to protect the manufacturing district. The legislation sparked a contentious fight. Developers lined up on one side, arguing that such artificial restrictions prevented the city from finding the land’s “highest and best use.” If Chicago’s de-industrializing trend was any indication, they argued, the city was essentially protecting what would soon be empty land and vacant buildings.
The Chicago Tribune railed against the proposal in a 1987 editorial. “For a city like Chicago, there is just one sure way to get extra tax revenue for needed programs in housing, health, and transportation,” the editorial board opined. “Put out a welcome mat for developers.”
Manufacturers split into two camps. Companies that favored the ordinance hired urban affairs specialist Louis Masotti to act as a consultant. Masotti invoked the argument about the well-paying jobs industry reliably brought with it, and the city’s need to protect them, in a 1987 interview with The New York Times.
“Will the city’s industrial culture withstand the forces of the global economy only to be brought to its knees by a Yuppie culture that would replace $30,000-a-year steel jobs with $3.35 jobs packing groceries?” he asked.
But many industrialists resented being told what they could or could not do with their private property, jobs be damned. If developers wanted to offer them top dollar for their land, they’d be more than happy to take it. Plibrico Co., a manufacturer of ceramic furnace parts, employed 75 workers at its Chicago facility, then located on Kingsbury Street. In July of 1988, Plibrico secretary Robert Schaefer told the Tribune he was fielding at least two calls a week from developers interested in his building.
“I want to be able to sell if I want to,” Schaefer said. Five manufacturers said they planned to sue the city if the zoning restrictions were put in place.
Eisendrath responded to the turmoil with a compromise. Strict prohibitions against residential development would stay in place. But the zoning ordinance would also allow for a commercial buffer strip between the factories and the condos. In addition to heavy industry, developers could court warehouses, distribution centers, car repair shops, and even some office and retail space, with certain restrictions.
The ordinance passed in City Council in 1988, and in many respects Eisendrath’s law was remarkably effective. It protected industrial use along this stretch of land, which came to be known as the Clybourn Corridor PMD, as well as in two nearby districts created soon after. One included Finkl’s neighbors across the river in the Elston PMD, and the other encompassed the entirety of Goose Island, a 160-acre landmass created when the river was dredged in the late nineteenth century. Eventually the city established 15 Planned Manufacturing Districts in other industrial corridors throughout the city.
But job retention was mixed. In 2005, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Joel Rast did a comprehensive study of the first three PMDs. The zoning designation did help stabilize businesses, Rast found. Between 1988 and 2004, the number of businesses in the PMDs increased 39.6 percent, to 356 from 255. The number of jobs grew 12.6 percent, to 7,415 from 6,588.
But the Clybourn Corridor fared the worst of the three, in large part because of the commercial buffer that had been added to the area. For every new retail job created, roughly one manufacturing job was lost.
The continued presence of manufacturing close to such a densely populated area also came with other costs. According to a 2008 Tribune investigation, the steel maker was the worst air polluter in the city. Similar concerns — and high rates of asthma and other lung ailments in surrounding neighborhoods — helped shut down the Fisk and Crawford power plants in the heavily Latino neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village in 2012, after years of effort by environmental activists. But Finkl and its neighbors remained.
Despite these problems, the zoning measure stayed in place. Eisendrath’s law had a built-in review process that was supposed to take place every 10 years — but never did.
“I’m stunned that it’s lasted this long,” he said in an interview last year. “We put in the law that it should be reassessed from ‘time to time.’ It never occurred to me that ‘time to time’ was twice in a century.”
Since its move, Finkl has stayed mum on its plans for the Lincoln Park site and what might replace its aging foundry complex. A representative for the company said the land is owned by several individuals, including former Finkl executives, but declined to make the owners available or comment further.
In that void of information — and leadership — North Branch Works has hosted a pair of community meetings to engage nearby residents in a conversation about what they’d like to see happen at the site. But Finkl has not taken part in these meetings either.
“We have much better communication with Lakin and the Gutmann folks,” Holzer says of Finkl’s neighbors.
In 2013, Holzer’s group received a $200,000 planning grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies to examine redevelopment options at the Finkl site. One thing Holzer knows though: He wants the area to stay industrial. From his office on Marcey Street, Holzer argues that the moratorium on residential and commercial development is as relevant as ever. Manufacturers “create head-of-household jobs, and they help create a broadly diversified economy for the city,” he says.
Still, data shows that old-school manufacturing jobs are on the decline, even within the PMDs. Those jobs fell 8.6 percent between 2002 and 2011 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, to 1,324 from 1,448. Meanwhile jobs in the professional, scientific, and technical services sector more than doubled during the same period, to 1,632 from 501.
That’s why Holzer doesn’t think the Finkl site will employ the next generation of steelworkers down the road. Instead, he points to a photo of the nearby Goose Island PMD, and to an old Budweiser plant now owned by Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. The building is now used to test machinery and create prototypes of new Wrigley products and represents the light, flexible future of American manufacturing. Those are the kinds of jobs and the kinds of development opportunities he envisions in Lincoln Park.
Plus, the building is “really cool looking,” Holzer says.
Many of Finkl’s neighbors, meanwhile, say they have no plans of leaving their urban bases and value their inclusion in the PMDs. Tim Ozinga of Ozinga Bros. concrete calls the company’s spot across the river from Finkl “an important strategic location,” situated as it is near the center of the city and right next to I-90/94.
“We’re delivering a perishable product,” Ozinga explains. “Concrete gets hard. We can’t travel long distances because it can affect the quality of the material.”
Lewis Lakin, whose family has run the Lakin Tires recycling facility since 1905, says his company has no plans of moving.
“We’re happy where we are,” he says.
That hasn’t stopped developers from envisioning an alternative future for the site. When the former Children’s Memorial Hospital sold in 2011, the 6-acre site fetched $65 million. The Finkl site is more than four times as big.
“The opportunity to create something that would make a significant difference to the city of Chicago and its economy is just wide open,” says J. Michael Drew, Principal of Structured Development LLC. “You very rarely would find that kind of assemblage in that size.”
Drew’s other projects include the massive New City development, which will fill the city block between Clybourn and Halsted Streets, leveled by the demolition of the former New City YMCA, with 1 million square feet of retail, offices, parking and condos.
But with the Finkl site, Drew says he and his colleagues feel constricted by the PMD’s zoning regulations.
“The speculation is that the current zoning policies within a PMD makes the property possibly [worth] one-tenth of what it would be with more flexible zoning,” Drew says.
Beyond that, Drew said he fears that without a unified vision for the site the parties involved will only become more entrenched in their points of view. His own grand vision would be to build a kind of village or campus — Silicon Valley style — with a broad range of services and amenities that might attract a major set of high-tech clients.
“What do those people want?” Drew asks. “They want support facilities, they want schools, they want daycare, they want entertainment. They want the things you would expect to see on a typical village that size, which is currently restricted.”
He and Holzer agree on this point, though: “It’s no longer the smokestack industries we’re looking to attract.”
The city is currently reviewing its protections of the PMDs for the first time, with a report commissioned by the Department of Planning and Development meant to examine the costs and benefits of keeping industrial protections in place. The report has not yet been made public, but based on early knowledge of its contents, Deputy Commissioner Peter Strazzabosco said the city currently has “no plan or thought at this point to at all modify the PMDs around Finkl.”
Eisendrath and the law’s other authors made it intentionally difficult to modify — any changes would have to be run by the Plan Commission. But this is Chicago, after all. Variances can be had, laws, overturned. The ordinance that kept the Clybourn Corridor industrial all these years could help or hinder its future by doing the same.
“The land in these PMDs on the North Side is among the most valuable industrial land in the region,” Holzer says. “And what could be built here is going to have a lot of value.”
Robin Amer is a reporter based in Chicago. Her work frequently deals with the changing landscape of America’s cities.
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