Tribune Media’s plans for 30-acre slice of “River District” win city approval

The site could someday be home to 14 buildings with 5,900 apartments and 19,000 permanent jobs

Tribune Media’s imagining of the 37-acre “River District”
Tribune Media’s imagining of the 37-acre “River District”

The real estate arm of the Tribune Media Company won preliminary approval to build a 30-acre campus with up to 9 million square feet of homes, stores and offices on the site of its Freedom Center printing plant in River West.

The Chicago Plan Commission voted Thursday to rezone the site around 777 West Chicago Avenue for “Downtown mixed-use,” which gives the developer free reign to build homes, parks, stores, hotels and offices all along the west bank of the Chicago River between Grand and Chicago avenues.

The site area makes up the bulk of the Tribune’s proposed $2.5 billion “River District” mega-development, which the city submitted last year as a contender for Amazon’s second North American headquarters. The Tribune also is partnering with Riverside Investment & Development to continue the project on seven acres north of Chicago Avenue. The commission approved that plan separately earlier this year.

The planned development approved Thursday outlines 14 buildings up to 650 feet tall scattered across the property and buffeted by green space, but details of each building have not been finalized. A press release last year predicted up to 5,900 residential units and 19,000 permanent jobs on the site by the time the entire development is fully realized.

As part of the multi-year project, the city approved a plan to extend Jefferson Street through the center of the campus as a main thoroughfare.

The developer also has vowed to create a publicly accessible riverwalk promenade along its entire 3,200-foot waterfront edge.

The first phase of the plan proposes four towers combining for 1,500 apartments between Grand and Erie Street, at the south end of the site. Construction would get underway in early 2020, with the goal of accepting the first tenants by the end of 2021.

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The entire 37-acre development’s “master plan” will include 20 percent of apartments rented below market rate in accordance with the affordability “pilot zones” created by the city last year. []

The developer will also take advantage of the city’s Downtown density bonus program to build with a higher floor-area ratio than would be otherwise permitted under the site’s zoning. In return, Tribune Media will pay about $13 million into the city’s fund for business improvement grants on the city’s South and West Sides.

Members of the commission Thursday raised concerns over the development’s potential to clog traffic in the area, but a representative for Tribune Media said the company had worked with city transportation planners to add street extensions and connections that would help area roads absorb more cars.

The site sits across the river from Groupon’s 16.5 million-square-foot headquarters at 600 West Chicago Avenue, which Sterling Bay bought earlier this year for $510 million.

The Tribune site also faces the southern tip of Goose Island, where the Onni Group recently backed out of a bid to build apartments on the site of Greyhound’s 8-acre bus facility.

Developers have swung their focus hard to the city’s North Branch Corridor since the city adopted a mass rezoning last year to encourage the construction of homes and offices on the traditionally industrial-dominated riverfront.

Farther north on the river, Sterling Bay has plans for a sprawling mega-development of its own, Lincoln Yards. The Chicago-based developer is currently working through the approval process for that project with community groups and Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd).