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On the Vacant Site of a Chicago Steel Mill, SOM Knits a Neighborhood Back into the Lake Michigan Waterfront
A post-industrial poster child for urban development grows on the South Side
By John Gendall
Considering the density of Chicago and the top-shelf prices that lakefront real estate attracts, it might seem odd that plans are currently underway to develop a nearly 600-acre site in the city itself directly alongside Lake Michigan. But with the shuttering of South Works, a steelmaking plant that U.S. Steel used to fabricate much of the raw material that went into Chicago’s epic skyline, that’s precisely what’s happening.
U.S. Steel, which still owns the land, partnered with Chicago-based developer McCaffery Interests to develop the site by transforming it into a mixed-use, walkable community built on sustainable infrastructure. To carry out this estimated $4 billion vision, their joint venture, Lakeside Development LLC, turned to the Chicago office of SOM and Sasaki Associates, a Boston-based design firm that specializes in urban planning and design. Together, those two firms conceived the masterplan, which the city approved at the end of 2010. And by jumping over another important hurdle—securing $98 million in tax increment financing —Lakeside is poised to move forward.
Bringing the waterfront to the South Side
One of the design’s top priorities is to reconnect the South Side of Chicago to the waterfront. “This very old and established neighborhood has always been on one side of the fence,” says Phil Enquist, FAIA, SOM’s partner in charge of urban design and planning. “The steel plant was on the other side, which meant that the community has never had access to Lake Michigan.”
The waterfront edge itself has been deeded to the city, which will allow park space to extend across the 32-mile strip of Chicago’s public waterfront. A marina is also planned along this edge.
This South Works site, nine miles from downtown Chicago, is in many ways emblematic of an urban condition playing out in cities across the U.S. When industrial markets (like manufacturing, shipping and warehousing) expanded, cities quickly industrialized sites alongside waterfronts and rail lines. Now, in a post-industrial economy, cities must reconsider these vacant, often environmentally toxic sites. Some of the most progressive schemes for remediating these sites have seen cities turn former industrial grey and brownfields into park land. U.S. Steel abandoned this particular site in 1992, razing the existing buildings and leaving a vast empty space between 79th Street to the north, and the Calumet River to the south. But to the South Side Chicago neighborhood to its west, it has left an impenetrable barrier to Lake Michigan, which SOM and Sasaki aim to overcome.
Before the current McCaffery plan, the city had been eyeing the site as a place to lay down a north-south freeway, complete with frontage roads, effectively severing the site in two and continuing to block public access to the lake. SOM and Sasaki worked to avoid that scheme, proposing a boulevard instead of a freeway, and keeping signaled pedestrian access at each intersection. By breaking up the site into smaller-scaled blocks, they were able to maintain continuity with the existing city fabric. “This enabled us to extend the Southside grid—which is a 100-year-old grid—to the waterfront,” Enquist says. “That was a critical win.” The plan also allows the development to link with existing city rail stations.
U.S. Steel has already remediated the site, but the designers are calling for sustainable systems to keep that momentum going. Hoping to address a significant environmental issue—and taking a sharp departure from the status quo in Chicago—SOM and Sasaki conceived a comprehensive stormwater strategy. The city was engineered to avoid sending urban water runoff into Lake Michigan, redirecting it instead westward towards the Mississippi River, where it flows--out of sight, out of mind--to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of its lakefront site and the project’s massive scale, Lakeside’s designers saw an opportunity to reverse this cycle. “We developed a stormwater strategy that captures water, filters it, and returns it to Lake Michigan,” explains Enquist. “It doesn’t enter the Chicago stormwater system.” Throughout the project, the architects are taking measures to reduce consumption, carbon and waste, using LEED for Neighborhood Development as a guide.
In keeping with the demanding realities of urban design on this scale, Lakeside is much more of a slow broil than an instant dinner. “We first started working with the city of Chicago in the late 1990s as a way to generate guidelines for developers,” remembers Enquist. “Then we were fortunate to be hired by McCaffery Interests. So we’ve worked on this twice, once with the public sector and now with the private sector side.”
Lakeside plans to roll out the development in a series of phases, the first of which, on the site’s northwest corner, is set to begin in 2012 or 2013 once the extension of Lakeshore Drive is complete. “The marketplace for new residential is not that strong at the moment, so this gives us time to position the various neighborhoods,” explains Enquist. “The idea is to build a neighborhood at a time.” Phase I is intended to meet the retail demands for the region. Chicago-based Antunovich Associates is overseeing this retail component. Lakeside also plans to implement park spaces in Phase I, and to create a temporary recreational program to attract people and interest to the site.
Even with a long road ahead, Lakeside and its architects are excited about the future. “Dan McCaffery wanted the best,” says Lakeside Development project manager Nasutsa Mabwa, referring to the founder and chairman of McCaffery Interests. “SOM and Sasaki have great reputations both here and around the world. When you have something this big, you need the best.”
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