In Chicago, a long-empty swath of land south of the Loop is the latest site of a planned mega-development.
By Ryan Smith
Birds of prey are a rare sight in Chicago. But on a blustery February day, I watch as a hawk perches comfortably on a telephone wire here in this sixty-two-acre expanse of land that lies just south of the Loop like it owns the place. Who’s around to tell it otherwise? Certainly no human being. In a city teeming with 2.7 million people, the population here is zero.
For fifty years, this open lot the size of forty-seven football fields has been defined by the things it is not: it’s not a neighborhood, not a park, not a nature preserve, but a phantom version of all of those things—a twilight zone. Try to find it on Google Maps and all you see is a grey-colored rectangular blank spot bounded by the Chicago River, Roosevelt Road, and 16th and Clark Streets. There are no buildings, no streets, no people, just crumbling remnants of its former life as a train yard. It doesn’t even have a formal name, just nicknames. The only one that has stuck is Rezkoville, a sarcastic nod to Antoin “Tony” Rezko, the infamous developer and political fixer who owned it for several years.
Now, the site is slated for a sprawling, multi-billion-dollar real estate project called “The 78”—a reference to the city’s seventy-seven official community areas. The 78, the company’s marketing copy says, aspires to be “Chicago’s next great neighborhood.”
One day, several years ago, I stumbled across the area by accident. I was trying to find a shortcut to Chinatown from the Loop on my bike. One minute, I was pedaling on a road past a Target; the next, I rode under a bridge and into an eclectic ecosystem of urban ruin and accidental wilderness—bloated bags of trash, broken glass, cracked concrete, and discarded furniture nearly swallowed up by tall green grasses and a patchy forest.
The place was quiet but not lifeless: at that time, fifty or so people planted their tents or lean-tos in the thickets of trees. Walking around, you could find flora and fauna rarely seen in the city—fireflies, wildflowers, coyotes. Urban explorers, myself included, snuck in occasionally to get a taste.
In 2014, Related Midwest announced that they intended to make something of the vacant land.
That laissez-faire era ended in late 2016, when real estate firm Related Midwest, the Chicago office of New York-based The Related Companies, ordered everything inside Rezkoville’s borders— all the trees, grasses, and improvised dwellings—razed to the ground. They ejected the transient population and erected chain-link fencing to keep interlopers out. An elevated stage appeared with the words “78” in letters large enough to be seen from an airplane flying overhead.
For most of the last two centuries, this future neighborhood was literally underwater, part of a mile-long crook in the Chicago River. In the 1920s, city leaders wanted to straighten the river to better connect the booming south and west sides to the street grid of the Loop’s central business district. “It cannot be emphasized too often that a new outlet southward from the Loop is one of Chicago’s most urgent needs,” said Chicago mayor William E. Dever, according to a 1926 Chicago Tribune article.
The city authorized a $9 million project to uncrook the river, and construction began in 1928. It was a complicated process because sewage and pollution still flowed south to empty into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, forcing engineers to dig out a channel before the old bend in the river could be filled in.
Chicago River 2.0 was completed in fifteen months, in December 1929, and the former mile of river was reborn as a large yard of dirt dug out for the channel. The roads and formal connections to the rest of the city were never built. Instead, rail companies built infrastructure to connect the crammed rail yards in the narrow space between Clark Street and the river to Grand Central Station, a passenger railroad terminal on West Harrison Street.
But the dawn of the age of the automobile was an inopportune time for train yards. Americans fell deeply in love with the car during the post-World War II era, and non-commuter rail passenger travel declined by eighty-four percent between 1945 and 1964. By 1969, Grand Central Station served an average of only 210 passengers a day, prompting the city to close it down that year. Without any other kind of urban infrastructure—no roads, telephone lines, water pipes—Rezkoville fell into a fifty-year slumber.
Efforts to wake it up have been mired in different circles of bureaucratic hell over the last two decades. In 1997, the city bundled the former rail yard into a 158-acre “Vacated Railway Area” as part of a “River South” Tax Increment Financing district to attract mixed-use development. (Tax Increment Financing districts, also known as TIFs, are a complicated bit of policy through which the city doles out funds from property taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements, in order to attract private investment and redevelop “conservation” or “blighted” areas.) Tony Rezko himself purchased the sixty-two-acre portion in 2002 and attempted to build an IKEA store there. But the deal fell through when the Scandinavian furniture giant opted for the nearby suburbs instead.
Three years later, Rezko tried again—asking the city for $140 million in TIF funds to build a new development with 4,600 residential units and 670,000 square feet of retail space he called “Riverside Park.” The city got cold feet, however, allegedly due to Rezko’s involvement in a contracting scandal related to Panda Expresses he owned at O’Hare Airport. Around that time, the FBI began investigating his connections to Governor Rod Blagojevich. (Eventually, Rezko would be sentenced to ten and a half years of prison on sixteen counts of fraud and attempted bribery.) In 2005, Rezko sold the property to a company owned by British billionaire Nadhmi Auchi, who also has a history of corruption charges.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel threatened to seize Rezkoville in 2014, using the powers of eminent domain, but before he could, Related Midwest acquired part ownership and announced that they intended to make something of the vacant land. Those plans were solidified in 2017 when a group of well-dressed government officials and other big shots convened on the site to announce that The 78 would be coming soon.
If The 78 is approved by Chicago’s City Council, the property will be fitted for urban consumption. The plan is to connect it to existing streets, public transit lines, andthe downtown grid. Meanwhile, thirteen million square feet of glittering new luxury apartments, office space, storefronts, and a possible public-private research center connected to the University of Illinois will spring up from the dirt over the next two decades. Five acres will be set aside for a paved one-hundred-foot wide portion of the Riverwalk and seven more acres for a crescent-shaped park that follows the path of the old Chicago River, pre-straightening.
There’s an outside shot that The 78 could include Amazon HQ2 as a corporate anchor if governor J.B. Pritzker can convince fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to reconsider the site. With or without Amazon, the project is expected to cost $7 billion.
It’s no coincidence that a handful of metropolises like Chicago, New York, London, and Hong Kong are being retrofitted with these mega-developments and cities-within-cities.
Supersized real estate projects are popping up all over the world. Dubai, for example, is getting an eight-million-square-foot climate controlled domed city called The Mall of the World. Remarkably, The 78 isn’t even the first collection of impossibly expensive towers, plazas, and shops birthed on top of the bones of a former rail yard by Related. That would be Hudson Yards—a skyscraper-filled mixed-use development in New York City opening this month that New York Magazine described as a “billionaire’s fantasy city.”
The 78 also has a mega-development sister closer to home: Lincoln Yards, a $6 billion real estate deal on Chicago’s north side approved this month by the City Council. Lincoln Yards is The 78’s unofficial sister site. There’s a different developer behind Lincoln Yards (Sterling Bay), but nearly everything else is virtually identical, including the architect: Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill LLP. Lincoln Yards is also a brownfield site along a branch of the Chicago River getting an upscale makeover in the form of luxury apartments, offices, shops, entertainment venues, and novel new ways to consume the riverfront.
It’s no coincidence that a handful of metropolises like Chicago, New York, London, and Hong Kong are being retrofitted with these mega-developments and cities-within-cities. As all the world comes to be ruled by the same global markets, capital is increasingly being concentrated by geography. This concentration of capital in the US is part of a trend that urban scholar Richard Florida calls it “winner-take-all urbanism.” It means that some places are winners, some are losers, and everyone is desperate to win the next pageant of investment.
In an era where every country and municipality is competing to attract fickle capital, you have to be considered “business-friendly” to do so. This means offering all sorts of financial incentives, like those that Amazon receives around the country. During his two terms as mayor, Rahm Emanuel intentionally positioned Chicago as such a “global city.” To sweeten the pot for both The 78 and Lincoln Yards, Chicago is expected to promise nearly $2.4 billion to the developers in the form of two TIF districts, including up to $700 million for The 78.
For firms like Related, the advantage of building on sites like Rezkoville is that they’re essentially blank slates. There are fewer residents to upset about the loss of their favorite bar or bookstore; no property owners to displace; few preservationists or NIMBY’s to assuage.
Up until recently, there’s been almost no political resistance to The 78, except for a small controversy over the location of an additional Red Line train station and murmurs about a scandal involving Alderman Danny Solis, whose 25th Ward includes The 78. Solis resigned as zoning chairman earlier this year after news broke that he was a target of an FBI corruption investigation and wore a wire to record conversations with other politicians. Candidates running to succeed Solis immediately began to question approvals for The 78 and Alex Acevedo—one of the final two candidates entering an April runoff for the seat—has called for an independent investigation. But few substantially questioned the idea of handing the keys of large swaths of land to big developers in the first place.
That changed when Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle finished first and second in the February 26th contest to succeed Emanuel. Neither earned enough votes to win outright, so the pair will face off in an April 2nd runoff election, and one will become Chicago’s first African-American female mayor. Both candidates, who have posed themselves as progressive reformers, have criticized the Lincoln Yards and The 78 projects and called for a delay on a potential April 10 City Council vote to green light their TIF districts.
“Why can’t we wait another month, six weeks, to let a new mayor, and a new City Council, really evaluate this project, and make sure there is a level of transparency, so people can take their measure of it?” Lightfoot said of Lincoln Yards on a recent political talk show.
But the March council vote to approve an $95 million contract with engineering giant to build a new police academy may be a preview for what will happen with The 78 in Emanuel’s final meeting. If current politics are any indication, Related’s plan is likely to move forward.
Nearly two years after Related bulldozed it clean, the Rezkoville land is stubbornly returning to wildness. It’s a brownfield site where brownfield doubles as a literal description. Some shade of brown permeates nearly everything in sight, from the beige and tan-colored grasses on the banks of the Chicago River to the dusky dirt paths marred by scattered bits of litter.
At the field’s southern border, patches of copper-colored prairie sway in the wind on a gentle ridge. When you stand at just the right vantage point, underneath the defunct bascule bridge on the southern border of the field, the view is startling: waist-high grasses are juxtaposed with the background of Chicago’s iconic cityscape.
Squint hard enough, and you can nearly trick yourself into thinking you’ve been thrust into the kind of dystopia portrayed in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, the young-adult book and movie series in which Chicago’s man-made built environment has been slowly reclaimed by nature because of a societal collapse.
The 78 is poised to become another monument to today’s “winners-take-all urbanism.”
At first glance, The 78’s plans seem like the utopian opposite of this Divergent scene. The conceptual art depicts crowds of ever-smiling, ever-diverse people strolling on concrete paths or lounging on carefully manicured lawns amongst squat buildings topped with lush gardens. It looks like a futuristic and verdant blend of city and suburb—or “surban” as real estate developers have begun to call the trend. Surban development, the thinking goes, will attract wealthy white millenials who enjoy the amenities of the city and short commutes, but who also want the bucolic suburban calm that comes with lower-density zoning and private green space.
What the drawings don’t illustrate is the the high cost of living in a neighborhood created entirely by a luxury developer. At one of Related’s Hudson Yards buildings, available apartments reportedly cost from $4.3 million for a one bedroom to $32 million for a duplex penthouse.
Related’s description of the project claims that The 78 “is imbued with Chicago’s culture and history, blending seamlessly with the neighborhoods it borders” but what it seems more likely to do is expand the geographies of inequality of a city that urban planner Pete Saunders has described as: “one-third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.”
Those chain link fences now surrounding the boundaries of The 78 will be replaced by barriers of the invisible kind, the ones that increasingly segregate Chicagoans by race and class. Only 500 of the proposed 10,000 housing units are designated as affordable. Related will avoid building another 500 and pay a $91.3 million fee to the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund.
The 78 is poised, then, to become another monument to today’s “winners-take-all urbanism” and its inherent racism and inequality.
Given all that, when Related brags on their website that “city by city, property by property, experience by experience, we transform what it means to live, to connect, to belong” it sounds like a promise.
A promise and a threat.
I better warn the hawk. ■
Ryan Smith is a journalist and essayist in Chicago covering politics, history, transportation, and media. He is a native of Springfield, IL.
Cover image of Rezkoville in February 2019, by Ryan Smith.
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