In 2050, few Chicagoans remember the steel plant at Seventy-Ninth Street. Residents of Lakeside, the city’s newest neighborhood built on the site of the old mill, ignore the placards in their apartment buildings, which state that for almost a century U.S. Steel’s South Works plant produced the steel that became the backbone of their city—the skeletal frame of the Willis (once Sears) Tower, the ribs of the John Hancock Center. The only visible remnant of the massive industrial operations conducted here between 1901 and 1992 is the gargantuan ore wall plunging westward from the lakefront like some giant, fossilized sea creature. It casts its quarter-mile-long shadow over Lakeside, a community that, since the first high-rises were built in 2018, has garnered international attention as a living laboratory for everything from green infrastructure to the latest forms of technology, education, and health care.
At Lakeside, hyper-efficient buildings keep residents’ monthly utility costs in the single digits. Coal has fallen dramatically down the list of Illinois’s primary fuel sources; what energy is required to operate the buildings comes from a mix of wind, solar, natural gas, biofuels, and other forms of energy, which continue to come on line thanks to the team of scientists working at Lakeside. Every rooftop is either planted and open to the public or blanketed with high-performance micro-solar panels. High-rises use photovoltaic glass skins to generate power from every square foot of the exterior. From their windows, residents can see Lake Michigan, Lakeside Energy Innovation Institution, and everywhere, green space—from rain gardens and native grass-lined pedestrian pathways to the neighborhood’s now iconic linear parks, which connect the community to Lake Michigan and the 20-mile Chicago Lakefront Trail.
Those whose families are from the Great Lakes states hear over and over that no one expected Chicago to become a global hub of clean energy development or Lakeside to become the economic driver the area lost when the steel mill was razed in the 1990s. They have trouble imagining why. To them, it is a given that the world’s innovators migrate to Lakeside, to this peninsula bulging out into Lake Michigan, to the city built on last century’s industrial waste.
The Tune-Up Phase
The future portrayed above is highly uncertain, shimmering in the distance like a mirage, or, more aptly, as a single potential reality, just one of millions. But every day, that version of reality becomes more likely thanks to McCaffery Interests, the Chicago-based real-estate development firm that is inspiring a group of planners, architects, scientists, and city officials to remain focused on the idea of Lakeside and the practical steps required to achieve that goal. “We’re really trying to accept that challenge head-on—how do we create the community of 2050?” says Ed Woodbury, president of McCaffery Interests, who is developing Lakeside in a joint venture with United States Steel Real Estate (U.S. Steel).
It’s as pragmatic a question as it is a bold one. Bordered by Seventy-Ninth Street, Green Bay Avenue, Ninety-Second Street, and Lake Michigan, the parcel in question contains 600 acres—the largest plot of land ever to be rezoned by the City of Chicago. A site of its size would already require a timeline of decades rather than years, but Lakeside lacks even basic infrastructure: roads, sewage systems, street lights. At the moment it is an astonishingly empty thing, animated only by the wild grasses and cottonwoods that have spontaneously claimed the empty land.
Progress is being made, however. Since the architecture and planning powerhouse Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) drew up the master plan in 2007, in cooperation with Sasaki Associates and Antunovich Associates, a slew of pre-development details have been sorted out, including the rerouting of Lake Shore Drive. Officially known as US Route 41, the highway used to terminate in Jackson Park, near the University of Chicago, but it has been extended south through Lakeside, forming a continuous two-mile conduit that connects people and resources to the previously inaccessible site.
That site is prime real estate. It is the city’s last undeveloped lakefront property and a completely blank slate, a rarity in Chicago, a city of nearly 3 million people. Thanks to trends toward urban environments, density is increasingly attractive to city dwellers, and when CEO Dan McCaffery brought McCaffery Interests to the project, the group won approvals to increase the number of residential units in the project proposal from 4,500 to 13,575. What had been in danger of becoming a suburb within the city became an urban planning model for the 21st century.
“When we’ve tried to develop new cities and new towns, I’m not sure the planning community has gotten it right very often,” Woodbury says. Lakeside is an attempt to remedy that, which is why the scale architecture model in Lakeside’s Marketing Center—housed in the only building not razed during the demolition of the mill—has raised some eyebrows. The buildings in the model, however, are just placeholders. They haven’t been designed, and when asked about details, Woodbury has one answer: “Who the hell knows? It’s important to understand that none of us have the answers . . . Right now is like the tune-up phase, where all the instruments are a little bit out of tune, and they’re trying to find the right key of C.”
What’s important today, other than continuing to rally support for the project, is an infrastructure framework that analyzes sustainability in every area and at every level: land use, street design, wastewater treatment, site remediation, and power delivery, just to name a few. “I don’t think we can get too far ahead of ourselves and think about how many green roofs we’re gonna have,” Woodbury says. “There’s lots of buildings we can develop, and those are fun, but when you get a chance to make a difference in a neighborhood, a city, it’s a whole different endeavor, and that’s what Lakeside is. It’s a chance to make a difference for the South Side of Chicago and for the city of Chicago.”
Drawing on the Past
Strolling the streets of Chicago in the early 1900s couldn’t have been terribly pleasant, with the smog of the smelters disfiguring the skyscrapers and horse manure dropped at regular intervals along the boulevards, yet it was in 1909 that the plan to make Chicago one of the most walkable cities in the country was penned. Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s Plan of Chicago, known prejudicially as the Burnham Plan, made several foundational recommendations to city officials, including the systematic arrangement of streets and improvement of the lakefront, and not only influenced the nascent field of urban planning but also has remained relevant to Chicago a century later.
Lakeside embraces the Burnham Plan and actually marks the completion of one of Burnham’s best ideas. Of Lakeside’s 600 acres, 130 have been given back to the public, completing Burnham’s vision to have uninterrupted access to the lakefront, all the way from downtown Chicago to Indiana. “That in itself is an amazing feat,” says Doug Voigt, SOM’s director of urban design and planning and one of the architects of Lakeside’s LEED-ND certified master plan, which received in 2012 the Sustainia Community Award, a global green initiative spearheaded by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Scandinavian think tank Monday Morning.
SOM’s strategic grafting of the area’s street grid is another move Burnham would’ve applauded, and it was praised by architecture critics, who noted the master plan’s emphasis on maintaining connectivity to the west and the choice to make the extension of Lake Shore Drive a pedestrian-friendly boulevard rather than a freeway.
The history of the site has equally influenced what might be built at Lakeside and how it might be greener. The site is landfill that used to be Lake Michigan, which means the water is still there, 40 feet below ground level, providing an opportunity for vertical chilled-water systems that use the natural temperature of the lake for energy-efficient cooling. The site is also not soil but slag, a rock-like byproduct of steel manufacturing, making it naturally porous. Slag’s large voids allow water to seep into the ground quickly and return directly to the lake. This porosity is especially meaningful in Chicago, where two billion gallons of water a day are sent through the city’s storm-water system, over to the Mississippi River, and down to the Gulf of Mexico. A “19th-century idea,” Woodbury calls it. “You don’t have to be a member of the Sierra Club to understand that that’s not right.”
Without existing infrastructure, McCaffery Interests and SOM aren’t tied to those 19th-century ideas, and they can skip over 20th-century notions as well to plan a city fit for the 21st. But what would such a project look like? Had anyone else tried planning such a thing? The answers were scattered around the world.
It would be easy to get overwhelmed if you were Ed Woodbury. A veteran developer who also trained as an architect, he understands the challenge of what’s being undertaken. But a wise man surrounds himself with wiser friends, and the leadership team at McCaffery Interests has enlisted partners around the globe to help it put together the puzzle of Lakeside. Early on, Woodbury, who spent time at SOM, sat down to lunch with Richard Tomlinson, a managing partner at the firm, and said, “Richard, how do we do this?”
Woodbury asked SOM for its global expertise. “Nothing can replace the local civil engineers, architects, and consultants that we have on the team,” he says, “but at the same time we wanted to expand that and get the best of the best from around the world.” The developer gathered engineers from WSP Group for transportation planning and Ramboll for ideas in sustainable infrastructure, as well as some unusual players, such as technology experts from Cisco Systems, who is providing leadership regarding the role of information technology in a neighborhood built from scratch.
McCaffery Interests also combed the international community for innovative ideas that could be replicated at Lakeside. In Copenhagen, it found a city reliant almost entirely on district heating, a far more efficient strategy in which the heat for a cluster of buildings is generated centrally. In Toronto, the team found a cooling strategy in which already cold water is taken from Lake Erie and used to cool 30 million square feet of downtown Toronto. “If you can eliminate cooling towers on all the commercial development,” Voigt says, “not only have you reduced the demand for potable water, you’ve reduced the power load.” Storm water will also be returned to Lake Michigan through the use of things like permeable pavement instead of flowing into the Mississippi.
Amy Francetic, executive director and cofounder of the Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust, a nonprofit technology accelerator that works to create new clean energy businesses in the Midwest, has been instrumental in facilitating the sustainability framework for Lakeside. She says studying foreign cities proved that green was the way to go. “All the communities we’ve looked at for examples are beautiful—brick roads and beautiful green space, and that is part of what is delivering those drainage properties,” she says. “It’s when you pave everything over that [you] overload the system.”
Francetic’s group is also examining options for smart meters and adding infrastructure for electric vehicles, which is sorely lacking in existing multifamily developments. What really excites Francetic, though, is the ability for Lakeside to serve as a living laboratory. “Making all this tangible and visible is really critical to helping people get comfortable with new forms of energy and changing their behavior,” Francetic says. “You have to be able to point to things [and say,] ‘This is that technology in action,’ and ‘This is that policy in action.’”
For all the rosy optimism, Lakeside is not without its potential pitfalls. The most obvious are the economic conditions in the surrounding communities and the project’s short- and long-term impacts on the Southeast Side of Chicago, an urban area distressed by the loss of blue-collar jobs from mill closures and de-industrialization. Understanding the neighborhood’s identity and its needs—and wants—will be key in building community support to ensure that Lakeside is not a patch of upper-class values stitched onto a quilt of working-class communities.
Woodbury, however, is not blind to the challenge before him or to the families the development will affect. “We’ve tested these [new ideas] out there,” he says, “and the way we test things is go and talk to people.”
Nasutsa Mabwa, project manager of development at McCaffery Interests, is on the site nearly every day. She interacts with community members regularly, whether during site tours on the trolley rented from the local chamber of commerce or at open houses in Lakeside’s marketing center, which was created from the old Foreign Inspector’s Office and recently renovated and LEED certified. Every communication channel is used in order to connect with residents. “We do weekly posts on Facebook to help people be engaged,” says Mabwa, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois–Chicago and an MBA from Roosevelt University. “We work with residents, local community groups, and the aldermen when we do open houses; we do paper flyers [because] not everyone uses the Internet, surprisingly, even though it’s 2013.”
South Chicago, the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the site, lost a huge economic force when U.S. Steel closed South Works, which employed nearly 20,000 workers at its peak. Lakeside is an opportunity to restore jobs and hope, and Mabwa says the residents are incredibly enthusiastic. “[After South Works closed] people were out of work and the community began to change,” she says. “People have been wondering what was going to happen at the site. They’ve been watching closely for more than 20 years.”
Yet Lakeside promises a healthier community not just through economic development but through intentionally blurred boundaries. Any new infrastructure employed at Lakeside will extend into the existing neighborhoods. “We are physically trying to draw a line around Lakeside and include part of the neighborhood in our thinking,” Woodbury says.
Already, the Lakeside team was instrumental in getting a $6.5 million grant from the State of Illinois to do a pilot project with the Chicago Department of Transportation, rebuilding existing road infrastructure to prevent the flooding that’s plagued the area. But perhaps one of the most promising ideas is the Lakeside Entitlement Zone, which, if McCaffery Interests has its way, will include a portion of the existing neighborhoods and give the area special rules regarding the procurement of building permits, entitlements, and business licenses. Applications for such documents will be fast-tracked, shortening time frames from months or years to weeks or even days. Such a simple idea could accelerate investment and hopefully encourage additional positive, community-led development. The City of Chicago reportedly is on board. “We have an administration that is very open to the idea,” Woodbury says.
It will be years before we know what the impacts of Lakeside will be, but McCaffery Interests and its leadership team are optimistic that by asking smart questions today, it can avoid the usual build-now-evaluate-later mentality that has cursed developments of this size in the past. Yet Woodbury is careful to remain realistic and business-focused, even as he balances the responsibility of creating something positive at Lakeside. “We are beyond conscious of the neighborhoods to the west and at times as focused on them as we are on Lakeside,” Woodbury says. “Yet at the same time, we’re not here to save the world. We like to understate it and say that we’re simply trying to develop a little 600-acre site.”
Mountains to Climb
It is the nature of our world that when one thing ends, another begins, and such is the nature of Lakeside. As the extension of Lake Shore Drive nears completion, plans begin for the construction of Phase 1, a mixed-use development on 70 acres in the northwest corner of the property. Yet even after the first phase is built and the commercial space is leased, Lakeside will be no more than a toddler in the grand scheme of its life cycle, and like a toddler, Lakeside’s identity can and will continue to change and evolve as it grows. Woodbury and the rest of his team rely on their mantra: Who knows what the future will look like? It is evident, however, that McCaffery Interests is asking the right questions and really pushing the boundaries of sustainable planning, which is all that can be done until the project gets a little bit older.
“The framework and the ideas behind the buildings are the strength of what we’re trying to advocate at Lakeside,” Woodbury says. “That’s everything from how we approach the site and enter the site physically to what we plan to do in the ground itself that no one will ever see. . . . Truthfully, for all the technologies and all the ideas, we have mountains to climb yet and lots of obstacles—financial obstacles, regulatory obstacles, market obstacles. We have big challenges in front of us.”
Challenges or not, the sheer imagination required to master-plan Lakeside may well be worth every hour and dollar spent on the endeavor for the way it has inspired Chicago to recall not only the Burnham Plan but also Burnham’s infamous quote: “Make no little plans.”