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‘Kennedy cap’ proposal in a jam over costs

Artist rendering developer Steven Fifield's plan 'Cap Kennedy' or build park over parts Kennedy Expressway just west downtown. | Courtesy~Fifield

Artist rendering of developer Steven Fifield's plan to "Cap the Kennedy," or build a park over parts of the Kennedy Expressway, just west of downtown. | Courtesy~Fifield Companies

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Updated: November 10, 2013 6:36AM

If downtown Chicago is to grow, it most likely is to grow to the west, beyond the commuter train stations. And that brings the future push for development up against the trench that contains the Kennedy Expy.

City planners have for years seen as sensible the idea of building a landscaped cap over the Kennedy, shielding the cars from neighbors and creating a park. It would be a focal point and an invitation to invest in the Near West Side. Think of Millennium Park on the other side of downtown, in finances as well as appearance.

Steven Fifield, founder of Fifield Cos., has embraced the Kennedy cap and drafted plans for it with architect Scott Sarver, principal of SMDP Studio. He’s also discussed the idea with community groups and politicians. Most like the plan, but the cost — now estimated at $60 million per block — threatens to keep it a vision and nothing more.

“It would be a clear improvement for that expressway corridor, but there are a lot of questions about how to pay for it,” said downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).

Fifield is betting that the park would intensify developer interest in surrounding parcels. The new offices or apartments could generate tax revenue that pays off bonds for the project.

But when he broached this subject a year ago, he was sketching out a four-block deck, running from Washington to Jackson, costing $15 million per block. He said that the new estimate of $60 million comes after input from the city’s Transportation Department.

Alan Schachtman, executive vice president at Fifield Cos., said the higher cost reflects requirements for ventilation, fire prevention needs and even the landscaping and irrigation of the deck. He’s still a believer. “It would do for that area what Millennium Park did for the east side,” Schachtman said.

Initial funding could come from the Canal Congress tax-increment financing district, which had $49 million in its account at the end of last year, most of it committed to other projects. They include $11 million for a favorite of the city’s: the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system on Ashland.

Suggesting TIF for a downtown enhancement will lead to criticism that neighborhood needs are being ignored and priorities are misplaced.

Sarver, however, said the Kennedy cap is perfect for a TIF. “I think that, fundamentally, this is what they were for — to improve our infrastructure and to spur growth and development,” he said.

TOKYO CALLING: The old Tokyo Hotel at 19 E. Ohio had a function, I suppose, as being a dirt-cheap place to stay downtown if you could put up with the questionable sanitation and documented building code issues. Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) described the place as “dodgy” when he mentioned in a City Club of Chicago speech that the hotel is due for a makeover.

Property records show New York-based Sydell Group Ltd. bought the 15-story building earlier this month for $13.5 million. The company has formed a venture with billionaire Ron Burkle to develop hostels catering to young travelers and those on a budget.

Sydell spokesman Michael Tavani said the hotel will reopen as the second operation of a brand called Freehand. The first one opened in Miami in 2012. Tavani said the brand offers a mix of shared and private rooms. The work will take about 18 months and give the hotel a new on-site bar and café, he said.

THE CLOSER: This is my last column for the Sun-Times and I wanted to pause here at the end and thank everyone for reading over the years. I’ve had a great run, starting in 1998 when I came in one Monday and opened a memo written with military-like dispassion that ordered me to start writing a commercial real estate column pronto.

That was the stated subject matter, at least. Over time, the column became more about the changing city, from big trends to everyday deals that promised an impact on what we see around us. To me, that’s what makes real estate a compelling story.

Thank you for your ideas, your praise and critiques. My next assignment is to join Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration in his Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. I welcome the challenge but will miss writing about our shared interest in what makes Chicago tick.


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