De­vel­oper lays out ‘North Union’ vi­sion for Moody Bi­ble’s ‘ex­cess’ North Side prop­erty

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - droeder@sun­ | @Roed­erDavid DAVID ROEDER

Chicagoans who like to fol­low the do­ings of de­vel­op­ers know the names of the grand vi­sions out there.

We have Lin­coln Yards on the North Side, The 78 on 62 yawn­ing acres near Roo­sevelt and Clark, and the imag­ined thicket of high­rises next to Sol­dier Field in a devel­op­ment called One Cen­tral, an as­pi­ra­tional name for prop­erty more like One Off-the-Beaten Path, un­less you are go­ing to a Bears game. Some­day, maybe.

To th­ese we can add one more name for not quite a mega­plan on the scale of the oth­ers but sig­nif­i­cant nonethe­less and in a well-pop­u­lated part of town. It’s North Union, the la­bel be­stowed by James Letchinger, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of JDL Devel­op­ment.

Letchinger said it refers to be­ing on the Near North Side and sit­u­ated to “unify” sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods, such as River North and River West, the Gold Coast and Streeter­ville. It’s a long-term play; he fig­ures his plan might take eight to 12 years to re­al­ize, but he’s ea­ger to get started and raise the nec­es­sary cap­i­tal. He in­tends to en­liven blocks he views as un­der-uti­lized while also se­cur­ing the next chap­ter for JDL.

“It’s what I look for to con­tinue to build JDL for the next decade,” Letchinger said. His son now works there, so he’s think­ing ahead.

Letchinger has a con­tract to buy eight acres from the Moody Bi­ble In­sti­tute roughly be­tween Wells, Chest­nut and Oak streets and the CTA’s Brown Line. One par­cel, a nearly square­block soc­cer field, runs north of Oak Street and along­side Wal­ter Pay­ton Col­lege Prepara­tory High School.

Moody Bi­ble it­self isn’t go­ing any­where from its base at 820 N. La Salle St. The Chris­tian school sold prop­er­ties it deemed to be ex­cess, some of it de­voted to park­ing. It’s an as­sem­blage to make de­vel­op­ers drool.

Letchinger said he has time — he won’t say how much — to find cap­i­tal part­ners and close the deal. Both par­ties in the sale de­clined to re­veal the price. Get­ting the land re­zoned can be a pre­req­ui­site for a de­vel­oper’s fi­nanc­ing, and Letchinger said he’s in early talks with the city about what needs to be in his even­tual pro­posal for a planned devel­op­ment — a catchall zon­ing cat­e­gory that would con­trol what hap­pens on dif­fer­ent parcels.

He fig­ures he’s sev­eral weeks from show­ing plans to com­mu­nity groups and, if all goes well, at least a year from start­ing any con­struc­tion.

“We have the op­por­tu­nity to build a com­mu­nity,” he said, in­sist­ing that doesn’t mean load­ing it down with high-rises. Letchinger said he will fo­cus mostly on rental hous­ing in keep­ing with the scale of the area but might go taller, such as 50 sto­ries, later in the devel­op­ment. For that, he’s got his eye on that soc­cer field.

Letchinger said he was up against big Chicago names vy­ing for the Moody Bi­ble deal — Golub, Hines, John Buck. Another bid­der was Cana­dian firm Onni Group. Onni re­de­vel­oped the for­mer Atrium Vil­lage at Di­vi­sion and Wells streets, where it has been crit­i­cized for how it treated low­in­come res­i­dents. The site used to be owned by churches com­mit­ted to racial and eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion.

“Thank­fully, I didn’t have to out­bid those oth­ers,” Letchinger said.

“I doubt that any­body has more ex­pe­ri­ence in this neigh­bor­hood than we do, and that res­onated well with Moody Bi­ble.”

In a let­ter to the campus com­mu­nity, Moody’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Mark Wag­ner, said, “With JDL, we chose the best part­ner to de­velop this land and se­cure the nec­es­sary re­sources to grow our outreach and in­crease our ed­u­ca­tional im­pact. We are ex­cited about the op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish a state-of-the-art campus bet­ter suited for the 21st cen­tury and fur­ther our mis­sion, po­si­tion­ing us to dou­ble our im­pact and reach by 2030.”

Wag­ner said Moody re­tains a right to re­view JDL’s pro­posed uses for the prop­erty.

JDL’s prior work on the Near North Side is gen­er­ally well re­garded, and the com­pany is in the thick of its big­gest project, the two-tower com­plex planned on the old park­ing lot on Chicago Av­enue across from Holy Name Cathe­dral.

The first tower in the One Chicago project — there’s another name — is un­der con­struc­tion. It’s to be de­liv­ered late in 2021, when Letchinger hopes we’ll be past the pan­demic, and the mul­ti­fam­ily mar­ket will look bet­ter. “If I had to de­liver those units this year, I’d be ter­ri­fied,” he said.

Sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism that he’s build­ing only for the rich, Letchinger said he won’t need any sub­si­dies from tax in­cre­ment fi­nanc­ing, and he’ll in­clude a plan for af­ford­able hous­ing in his pro­posal. “We think it’s very pro­gres­sive and, es­pe­cially in th­ese times, crit­i­cally im­por­tant,” he said.

If he fol­lows through, he’ll be singing a tune Mayor Lori Light­foot wants to hear.


JDL Devel­op­ment plans to build on the area shaded gray. The Moody Bi­ble In­sti­tute is re­tain­ing the area in yel­low.

James Letchinger

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