The plan to redevelop the old U.S. Steel South Works, which the City Council’s Zoning Committee approved on Thursday, isn’t just good for the South Side of Chicago. It’s a model for how cities all over the Midwest can use their waterfronts.
The first phase, to be built by McCaffery Interests, will transform 77 acres of abandoned steel mill into a million square feet of retail space, a brand-new middle class neighborhood, and a new park, extending south from Rainbow Beach.
Reclaiming the U.S. Steel site is a pet project of 7th Ward Ald. Sandi Jackson, who boasts that “its proximity to the lake is something that you can’t get anywhere else in urban living.”
At least, you can’t get it anywhere else on the South Side. That’s one reason it’s always lagged behind the rest of the city, economically. The only South Side neighborhoods with direct access to the lake are Hyde Park and South Shore. Not coincidentally, they’re also the most prosperous. (The East Side also has a sliver in Calumet Park, but most of its lakefront is occupied by the Illinois International Port.)
Unlike the rest of Chicago, the Southeast Side has never recovered from the Rust Belt era. The steel mills left, but nothing replaced them. This plan is a model for how other Great Lakes cities can redevelop waterfronts that once welcomed ships delivering ore to factories that padlocked their gates decades ago.
Water is a major cultural amenity, says John Austin, director of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative. Most Great Lakes cities sit on magnificent waterfronts. Tear down the old factories blighting the view -- as Waukegan is also trying to do -- and you can create downtowns full of expensive lofts and coffee shops with open-mike nights.
“People like to live and work in places that are proximate to water,” Austin says. “Traverse City, Mich., is so physically beautiful that people who can work anywhere -- people with graphic design businesses, media businesses -- have chosen to live there. That's a huge piece of the economic picture.”