South Works plan floated
Rapper Common, developers envisioning movie studio campus as part of U.S. Steel redevelopment
Chicago rapper Common and a group of real estate developers are drawing up plans to convert the massive former U.S. Steel plant on the city’s south lakefront into a sprawling movie production campus alongside live entertainment venues, sports facilities, hotels, homes and shops.
The audacious 415-acre plan is potentially transformational for the jobs-starved area around the site on Chicago’s southeast side, but it’s still a long way from becoming reality.
New plans for the South Works site, a property that has vexed previous developers, are emerging as the city also considers it as a potential location for a casino.
The mostly Los Angeles-based development group does not have a contract to buy the South Works site, according to people familiar with the deal, and the developers are still talking to potential investors. The group also would need zoning approval from the city.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, whose 10th ward is one of two that the site lies in, said Friday she hasn’t talked with the developers recently.
Sadlowski Garza said she talked to representatives of the group “about a year ago,” and said they spoke in general terms about the plans for the TV and movie studio complex. “I was supportive, yeah,” Sadlowski Garza said. “I was cautiously optimistic, let’s say. We’ve been down this road before.”
The group’s business plan includes an approximately $71 million cost to acquire 415 acres, according to a book with information on the project being shown to prospective investors.
On a 128-acre, southeast portion of the site, the plan envisions a massive film production campus, with 15 to 20 sound stages, as well as production and post-production
Studio tours would be offered as a tourist attraction, according to the business plan.
To the north would be a 56-acre area with live music, including a theater incorporating existing ore walls from the former steel plant. It also could include sports and recreation such as a climbing wall, skate park, sports fields and courts. The plan also could include a golf practice facility and social club affiliated with former pro golfer and Greg Norman, according to the investor documents.
The plans also include residential buildings, hotels and other retail and entertainment concepts, such as an outlet mall and a restaurant district with a food hall, multiple parks and other public outdoor spaces.
Sadlowski Garza said she has discussed the film studio complex with the developers but has not been briefed on the other portions of the proposal.
The city’s Department of Planning and Development expects to hold an initial meeting with the development team before the end of the summer, said spokesman Peter Strazzabosco.
Firms involved in the plan include Common’s Freedom Road Productions film company, according to documents obtained by the Tribune and people familiar with the plan.
Dakota Development, a subsidiary of Los Angelesbased SBE Entertainment Group, also is involved. It is owned by entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, whose developments have included SLS hotels in Beverly Hills, South Beach and Las Vegas.
Others in the venture include RoadTown Enterprises, a Los Angeles consulting and management company with experience creating film production studios in other cities and Chicago development firm DL3 Realty, led by Leon Walker.
Also involved is the New York-based family of Morris Nasser, the owner of the Congress Plaza Hotel on South Michigan Avenue.
Several developers involved in the project did not respond to requests for comment, nor did 7th Ward Ald. Greg Mitchell, whose ward also includes part of the site.
U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox declined to comment on the proposal.
“A robust redevelopment of South Works is a goal long shared by our company and the surrounding community,” she said in an email. “We have no updates to report on the property at this time.”
It’s unclear how much the entire development would cost, but a multiphased project of its size could easily run into the billions of dollars.
Previous plans by other developers have fallen apart in recent years because of the sheer size of the site, concerns about soil contamination and a dearth of public transportation near the property.
There’s also a new twist. On July 17, Mayor Lori Lightfoot named the site as one of five that will be part of an economic feasibility study as the city evaluates casino locations.
South Works is the only privately owned site among the five locations being studied for a potential casino. Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel, which closed its plant there in 1992, has been trying for years to sell the property to a developer.
Cushman & Wakefield brokers have been marketing the site to potential buyers under the name 8080 Lake Shore Drive. The property runs along Lake Michigan between 79th Street and the Calumet River.
Emerald Living was the most recent developer to draw up ambitious plans for the site, proposing up to 20,000 modular homes there. But the Irish firm in May 2018 backed off the project because of concerns about soil contamination.
Previously, a joint venture of Chicago developer McCaffery Interests and U.S. Steel spent 12 years trying to kick off a mixeduse development on the site.
The newest group brings a mix of star power and development experience to a project that will require all the oomph it can muster.
Musician Common, a Chicago native whose legal name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., has acted in movies and television shows, and his Freedom Road Productions’ projects include the Showtime drama “The Chi.”
Dakota Development is led by former Hyatt Hotels executive Joe Faust, who was involved in Chicago developments such as the Park Hyatt tower on North Michigan Avenue and the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, according to the company’s website. The owner of Dakota Development’s parent company, Nazarian, has experience developing luxury hotels and in Hollywood film production.
RoadTown has developed movie studios in other U.S. cities, including one near Atlanta.
DL3 Realty has a track record developing properties on Chicago’s South Side, such as the Whole Foods Market in Englewood.
The Nasser family brings deep pockets, but also controversy stemming from its longtime ownership of the Congress Plaza Hotel. The hotel’s owners had a contentious contract dispute with Unite Here Local 1, the union that represents cleaning and maintenance workers.
The bitter, decade-long strike ended in 2013. It was believed to be the longest hotel strike in the world. Because of that, the Nassers’ involvement in the South Side proposal could prove problematic for Sadlowski Garza, who has a strong pro-union background and voting record on the City Council.
Chicago-born entertainer Common is among investors in the massive redevelopment proposal.
Some of the existing U.S. Steel South Works structures could be repurposed as part of redevelopment.