Similar to the zoning opportunity bonus announcement Mayor Rahm Emanuel made in February, which was big on goals and light on details, the Mayor announced yesterday that the Department of Planning and Development will review and improve the city’s zoning code as it relates to another major zoning issue: what to do with its large, and in some cases underutilized, industrial corridors.

The Mayor’s office announced the city will launch a review process with public input “focused on modernizing restrictive zoning in these corridors.” The city currently has 26 industrial corridors, 12 of which have 15 sub-areas designated as Planned Manufacturing Districts, or PMDs.

These areas were put in a strict zoning boundary to promote and protect manufacturing businesses in the city by preventing developers from buying up old and vacant industrial sites and converting them into office, residential, or other uses. In fact, residential and commercial uses are prohibited in PMDs.

One of those sites, the Clybourn PMD, which includes the decommissioned Finkl Steel Plant, is the subject of a lot of development interest for its central location in Lincoln Park, and size: the 115 acre site is bounded by Clybourn Avenue, the Chicago River, North Avenue, and Southport Avenue.

The Mayor’s announcement comes as one local alderman, Brian Hopkins (2), is in the process of getting DPD to eliminate the Clybourn PMD to facilitate a broader range of development for the neighborhood.

Ald. Hopkins told Aldertrack that he already has a community meeting on the books for May 3rd at DePaul University for residents and “community stakeholders” to discuss what kinds of development they’d like to see replace the old steel plant. “It’s a significant amount of acreage…ideas run the gamut,” Hopkins said.

But Hopkins stressed that he did not want to use Clybourn as a test case for the city to eliminate the city’s 14 other PMDs, four of which are partially located within his ward, as part of the North Branch Industrial Corridor.

The Clybourn PMD is the oldest in the city, created in 1988 as a way to halt residential development from encroaching on the industrial site. But since the plant’s owners decision to move to the city’s South Side, the area has remained vacant, and prohibitive zoning has prevented development on the site.

Any effort to the rezone the Clybourn PMD would have to be introduced in the form of a zoning amendment, likely by the Mayor on behalf of the Department of Planning and Development. The timetable on that ordinance is unknown, as is the zoning designation. Ald. Hopkins said he didn’t know if the city would choose one underlying zoning designation for the entire property, or if it would be zoned in sections. And the mayor’s office, when asked about the Clybourn downzone,  said yesterday’s announcement just “starts the process of looking at Chicago’s industrial areas.”

So, it’s unclear if the Clybourn plan will move forward on its own path, or if the city will hold off until it conducts its review of all industrial sites across the city. Either way, no formal plan has been made.

Still, Hopkins said he wants to “proceed without delay…before the city gets caught in another economic downturn.”

According to the mayor’s press release, the review process will lead to formal zoning changes that will have to be approved by the City Council. Those changes, the release notes, aim to accomplish three goals:

  • Determine which industrial corridors have the “potential for new or continued manufacturing growth” through market research.

  • “Reform some industrial corridors to unlock new economic growth where industry is no longer the main driver.” Under this point, the Finkl Steel Plant is mentioned: “In areas such as the North Branch, where traditional industry is no longer the main economic driver and properties like the former A. Finkl & Sons Co. site are stagnant, the city will review existing and potential land uses to accommodate market demand for potential technology, commercial, residential or retail development.”

  • A proposed fee on non-industrial developments in industrial corridors. The fee structure would factor the impact the development would have on the city’s overall industrial landscape. Money generated from the new fee would pay for industrial and manufacturing jobs in nearby neighborhoods and the cost of infrastructure improvements to industrial corridors transitioning to other uses.