By Mark Guarino
January 9, 2019
Professional soccer and stadium-size concerts are both unwelcome along the North Branch of the Chicago River—at least according to the alderman whose ward would contain the controversial $6 billion, 54-acre Lincoln Yards project proposed by Chicago developer Sterling Bay.
Alderman Brian Hopkins of the 2nd Ward said in an e-mail to constituents Tuesday that he rejects Sterling Bay's proposal to build a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and an entertainment district operated and controlled by multinational concert promoter Live Nation.
In May, Sterling Bay had announced that Lincoln Yards would become "the premier event and recreation district in Chicago," and that it would host a "curated year-round calendar of events." The development, to be built on the site of the former Finkl Steel plant bordered by Bucktown and Lincoln Park, would also include more than 12 million square feet of office, residential, hotel, and retail space. The Live Nation partnership, backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was roundly criticized by a group of Chicago club owners at a public meeting in late November—they complained that the deal would unfairly hand the company a monopoly over the city's thriving music economy.
Live Nation proposed between three and five music venues in its entertainment district, to be located south of Armitage Avenue. The venues would range from 800 to 20,000 seats, with some in the 3,000- to 6,000-seat range. In his e-mail, Hopkins said he no longer supports the district or Live Nation's involvement, but that leaves several unanswered questions: Given that he doesn't propose eliminating venues from the development completely, how many would there be? What capacity would they have, and who would control them?
"The Entertainment District will be eliminated from a revised plan and replaced by restaurants, theaters, and smaller venues that will be scattered throughout the site," Hopkins said in his e-mail. "Live Nation will have no ownership interest in any of these venues." He also wants the site of the soccer stadium repurposed "as open and recreational park space."
Neither Hopkins nor representatives from Live Nation Midwest responded to requests for comment for this story.
The Chicago club owners who opposed the Live Nation partnership in November, now acting collectively as the Chicago Independent Venue League (CIVL), say they're not convinced that Live Nation won't somehow continue to play a role in Lincoln Yards. They charge that Sterling Bay hasn't been forthcoming regarding the number, size, or capacity of the proposed clubs, and suggest that Hopkins is being evasive regarding how Live Nation will be involved as the project moves forward.
"We are happy to see that the city and the developer seem to be responding to our concerns, but we see no change on the central issues we have raised," says CIVL cochair Robert Gomez, owner of Subterranean and the Beat Kitchen, in a statement.
"We oppose the creation of multiple music venues of undisclosed sizes in this so-called city within our city," Gomez adds. "We see no indication that Live Nation or some other corporate conglomerate won't be running music venues in Lincoln Yards, even though the alderman has said Live Nation won't own any of the venues." CIVL continues to protest the speed at which the project is moving-Emanuel has clearly made it a priority to push it as far along as possible before he leaves office in April.
Through spokesperson Sarah Hamilton, Sterling Bay says the message involving the soccer stadium has been heard "loud and clear."
"We have removed the stadium and broken up the entertainment district, allowing for assorted smaller venues throughout Lincoln Yards where all independent music operators will have the opportunity to participate," the company says, adding that it will work to update its plan to improve "transit and infrastructure in the area."
Hamilton emphasizes that the stadium was the main reason the plan had taken shape as it had. "Without a stadium, you don't need an entertainment district," she says, "so the venues will be scattered around the development."
"Any operator has the opportunity to participate. If they want to open a venue or run a club, they should contact Sterling Bay," she adds.
The stadium was a key component of Lincoln Yards. Last year Sterling Bay announced that the facility would host a new United Soccer League franchise co-owned by the developer and Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts. Live Nation, which to date only controls the House of Blues and The Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island in the city, would be given exclusive rights to produce concerts outside the sporting events.
"It is a great stadium site. It has all the land you can need," Sterling Bay general counsel and principal Dean Marks told a local real estate podcast in June. "We can't be more excited to have [Ricketts] on board, because they actually know what they're doing." Marks said he looked forward to Ricketts turning the site into "this homegrown Wrigleyville of soccer."
The exclusive partnership with Live Nation set off alarm bells not just with venue operators but also in the larger music community. "The presence of a monolithic corporation given the keys to the kingdom of a very vibrant, very independent-minded community would have a very deleterious effect on the entire city," says Bloodshot Records cofounder Rob Miller.
Miller says he isn't fully satisfied that Live Nation won't control the venues in Lincoln Yards. "While today's announcement gives me some reason for cautious optimism, I've lived in this city entirely too long and seen entirely too much of this and other mayors to think that this issue is totally settled," he says. "There are entirely too many zeros after that dollar sign for this to go away."
Lincoln Yards could harm more than the music scene-Sterling Bay is also under scrutiny for the gridlock the development could cause, given that the arterial streets to its north and south are already heavily trafficked throughout the day. A neighborhood survey Hopkins released on his website shows an overwhelming concern for congestion mitigation. (More than half of residents are against the stadium.) In his e-mail Tuesday, Hopkins said Emanuel has directed the city's department of transportation and planning department to "expedite the reconfiguration" of the intersection of Armitage, Ashland, and Elston. A plan is due by the end of the second quarter of this year, and work will begin "as soon as possible."
"Upon completion, the resulting congestion relief is projected to mirror the remarkable success of the reconfiguration of an equally complex intersection at Damen/Elston/Fullerton," Hopkins wrote.
Through a spokesperson, Emanuel says he wants "a fair, balanced, equitable approach" to Lincoln Yards "that creates winners across the board, that allows development, economic growth, and job creation to happen . . . but in a way that also enhances the whole community."
However, the board members of CIVL—consisting of the owners of Metro, the Beat Kitchen, the Hideout, Martyrs', and other venues—say that because the project will require at least $800 million in tax increment financing (TIF) money, mostly for infrastructure improvements, it should be slowed down until after Emanuel leaves office. "This is not the time to fast-track massive projects that would include major subsidies for private corporations," says Gomez.
Right now the city's planning department wants to designate the Lincoln Yards site a TIF district so those infrastructure funds can be diverted to the project. If it succeeds, and if the city council approves the Sterling Bay proposal in the spring, the developer will be reimbursed with public money for building the new roads, bridges, and other components.
The next hearing of the city's Community Development Commission, which will hear the TIF package proposal, is Tuesday, February 19.