Steel Away

Editorial News

Chicago’s A. Finkl & Sons Co.
Ian Freimuth / Flickr

Demolition is underway at A. Finkl & Sons Co., the Chicago steel manufacturer that in 2008 vacated the riverfront site on the city’s Near North Side that it had occupied for more than a century. After the German steel mill Schmolz + Bickenbach bought out Finkl in 2007, it relocated the company’s operations to the Burnside Industrial Corridor on Chicago’s South Side. That left 28 acres of prime urban property up for grabs in an area with plenty of competing development interests. Now, with local real estate on the rebound, all of them are looking to strike while the iron is hot.

A number of groups have lobbied Alderman Brian Hopkins, a freshman member of City Council representing a tortuously redistricted ward, about what to do with the site, which makes up much of the Clybourn Corridor Planned Manufacturing District (PMD). Some want to maintain the industrial legacy of the area, arguing new manufacturers could offer middle-class jobs with considerably less environmental hazard than in the past. Others want to open up the Finkl site to the kind of commercial and residential development that has gentrified the surrounding neighborhoods since the Clybourn Corridor became the city’s first protected industrial area in 1988. Crain’s Chicago Business last year quoted “real estate experts” saying the property could fetch at least $100 million at market if it were rezoned out of the PMD.

Residents have organized under the RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association and, along with some developers, are pushing Hopkins to abolish the site’s PMD protection, noting that other industrial tenants like the Gutmann Tannery have also left the area as evidence that Chicago’s industrial days are long gone. It would be the first time any of the city’s 15 such districts were eliminated—ironic considering the Finkl plant was among the Clybourn businesses that motivated city planners to create the zoning tool in the first place. Hopkins appears open to the idea, telling WBEZ: “A planned manufacturing district is almost like a set of handcuffs. You know, it really limits you can do. We don’t need limits right now.”

Others hope the PMD could attract a new kind of industrial tenant, along the lines of the green cleaning products factory built by Method in the city’s Pullman neighborhood, or the digital manufacturing hub UI Labs that set up shop in the Goose Island PMD just to the south. Mike Holzer, executive director of North Branch Works, told Belt Magazine he wants to see that kind of development, because manufacturers “create head-of-household jobs, and they help create a broadly diversified economy for the city.” There’s also the concern that left to the whims of the market, the site’s unique historic character would get squeezed out by generic big box development and schlocky, high-rent condos.

Time is running out to reconcile those competing interests—cranes are already ripping up many of the buildings on the sprawling site, which in March landed on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecture. And any redevelopment will have to deal with the likely steep cost of environmental remediation (a 2008 investigation by the Chicago Tribune found Finkl was the city’s single biggest polluter), or slough off that burden onto taxpayers.

An interesting sign of the times: Both sides, which might reductively be described as pro- and anti-industry, want to overhaul the area’s urban infrastructure in similar ways. North Branch Works has proposed improving public transit and access to the riverfront, along with inviting “artisanal” manufacturers like craft distilleries into the area. It’s telling of the overall urbanist sentiment of the day that those cheerleading industrial use are doing so ostensibly for the sake of getting a friendlier neighborhood. Retail and service jobs have grown faster than manufacturing jobs, even in the PMDs, though. And it’s likely market pressures will edge out new industrial uses for the site without the PMD intact. But it may set a troubling precedent to allow developers to essentially rezone an area carefully tended to until now by urban planners.

Perhaps there is a middle path, with light industrial businesses keeping up the spirit of the Clybourn Corridor while other uses compete to develop parcels of the site. The aldermen overseeing the site—primarily Hopkins, but also Scott Waguespack and Michele Smith—should make sure ever succeeds the steel mill serves more than its developers’ short-term interests. Do not squander this chance to forge a distinct Chicago neighborhood from the ashes of an historic industrial campus.

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