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A development in sheep’s clothing

The three-tower project at Wolf Point looks like the latest big real estate deal shepherded through City Hall

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If you want to know how to make 1,800 hotel units magically disapper, I urge you to study the mysterious case of the Wolf Point Development, the three-tower project planned along the Chicago River near Kinzie.

This project has all the trappings of one of those fast-track deals that zip through the City Hall approval process, if only because everyone from the mayor on down is in utter awe of the people proposing it.

In this case, the developer, Hines Interests LP, has already shown a mastery of how to operate in Chicago by convincing Mayor Emanuel to fork over $30 million in TIF funds to build River Point, an office skyscraper across the river at 444 W. Lake, in a decidedly unblighted corner of one of Chicago's hottest real estate markets.

Hines' lawyer is Jack George, one of the most successful zoning attorneys in town—in no small part because he was smart enough to partner with Michael Daley, who was smart enough to know that he was the previous mayor's younger brother.

Why couldn't I have been that smart?

Finally, the land's owned by the Kennedy family, which is—actually, I think even our youngest readers know who the Kennedys are.

On May 29, the developers unveiled their project at a meeting hosted by 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly. They said it consisted of three towers—including one 950 feet tall—on the undeveloped spit of land just south of the Apparel Center (which, coincidentally, I call the Mothership, since it's where the Sun-Times and the Reader are headquartered).

The total project would be about 3.8 million square feet—as large as the Sears Tower. It would include hundreds of rental and office units as well as some commercial space, such as bars and restaurants. But the developers made no mention of hotels.

Repeat—no mention of hotels.

Over the summer, the developers worked with Reilly to accommodate concerns about traffic and congestion. At no time in any of those hours of negotiations with Reilly and the residents did the developer talk about hotel units.

By November, Reilly had agreed to back the project, as did two other community groups in the area, the River North Residents Association and the Fulton River District Association.

There was one source of objection—Friends of Wolf Point, an ad hoc group of local residents. They worried that the towers would overwhelm River North with traffic and congestion. "We love this neighborhood and we're not against development," says Ellen Barry, the group's president. "But a billion-dollar development on a small tract of land with limited egress and ingress and big implications on traffic and quality of life for the neighborhood? That's something else."

But in a letter to Barry, Alderman Reilly dismissed the group's concerns, noting that "nearly every aspect of the initial proposal has been significantly revised as a result of your feedback" and "we have secured unprecedented public benefits commitments from the developer."

The proposal was backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and put on the agenda for the November 27 meeting of the Plan Commission, the body of mayoral appointees that approves zoning deals. It was also put on the agenda of the November 29 meeting of the City Council zoning committee—thus strongly sending the message that the mayor wanted the deal done fast. There would be no reason for the zoning committee to hear the matter if it hadn't already been approved by the Plan Commission.

By that time, Friends of Wolf Point had hired a lawyer, Reuben Hedlund, to represent them at the Plan Commission meeting. And he'd been pestering the developers and the city for every relevant document.

On Monday, November 26—the day before the Plan Commission meeting—the developer sent six e-mails full of records. Hedlund forwarded them to Barry, who sent them to another member of her group, who downloaded them and started plowing through the material, only to discover—drumroll, please—that approval would enable the developer to put up 1,800 units on the site.

Again, this was the first time they'd heard about any hotel units coming to the complex, let alone 1,800 of them.

As Barry points out, the hotel units change the scope of the project. Instead of a largely residential complex with office space that's used during the workday, it becomes a 24/7 beehive of activity, which means more cabs and cars and buses and conference rooms and meeting rooms.

Barry contacted Larry Gage, president of the Fulton River District Association. "We were shocked and outraged," says Gage. "We wasted six to eight months in planning and then this happens."

Gage contacted the alderman's office. And Reilly asked the plan commission to take the matter off the agenda, on the grounds that he hadn't heard about the hotel units before this point either. As the alderman put it in a press statement: "Unfortunately, the final documents submitted yesterday did not accurately reflect what was negotiated."

One of the great understatements of recent times.

In short, it doesn't speak well of official oversight of big-time projects in Chicago. "If it wasn't for Reuben Hedlund sending us those documents, we wouldn't know about the hotels," says Barry.

Keep in mind, if the city approves this deal, it's Christmas come early for the Kennedys, for the obvious reason that land zoned for three towers and all those hotel units is worth a lot more than land that isn't.

Now everyone in the community wants know to know why the developers weren't more up front about the hotel units.

I called, texted, and e-mailed Alderman Reilly, but he didn't get back to me. But he did tell David Roeder of the Sun-Times: "In the interest of transparency this has to go back to the neighbors." Don't worry, alderman—I'm only a little bit hurt you talked to Roeder and not me.

I had better luck with Jack George. When I reached him on the phone, he told me he was busy moving into a new office and that he would call me back when he had some time.

So far no call back.

Now that I think of it, I got a similar response from Derrick Smith, the former and future state rep—the one who allegedly got caught taking a bribe—when I called to ask about his reelection campaign. He told me it was too noisy in the building but he'd call me back in two minutes. Still haven't heard from him either.

You know, it's a good thing I'm such a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Otherwise, I'd have a complex.

As for the developers, their spokesman, Bill Griffin, says that just because they claim the right to build 1,800 hotel units doesn't mean they will. "The 1,800 figure comes from taking the full square footage of the development and putting that into the city's formulas that allow other uses. Because of the size of this development it could hypothetically build 1,800 rooms. But that's never been the plan."

So how many hotel rooms does Hines intend to build?

"I don't know," says Griffin.

The matter's on the agenda for the December 20 Plan Commission meeting. Which gives everyone a few more weeks to figure out what face-saving spin they can put on this sucker.

It ought to be interesting.

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