CHICAGO — A curiously empty 62-acre swath of land just south of downtown Chicago is the proposed site for the University of Illinois' new Discovery Partners Institute.
The research center, which would bring faculty and students from the UI and partner universities together with industry to spur innovation, is part of a huge development planned for the site by Related Midwest.
Why hasn't the property been developed before? It has to do with topography and access, said Related Midwest President Curt Bailey.
The low-lying parcel was created when a wide U-shaped curve in the Chicago River was straightened out in the 1920s to help barges navigate the waters. For years, it housed railroad yards but then sat vacant for decades, once housing a tent city for the homeless.
The property is not easily accessible, with no through streets. It's surrounded by the Chicago River on the west, Metra train tracks and Clark Street on the east, 16th Street and Chinatown on the south and an elevated Roosevelt Road 35 feet above it on the north.
"You really don't even see it from Roosevelt," Bailey said.
But it's also the largest piece of undeveloped land in downtown Chicago.
The site was once owned by Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who had planned a large residential development there until he was imprisoned for fraud and money-laundering as a fundraiser for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. A Luxembourg firm, General Mediterranean Holding, bought the property in 2007, and Bailey said Related Midwest acquired a controlling ownership interest two years ago.
The company has since announced one of the most ambitious projects in the city's history, estimated to cost at least $5 billion.
Named "The 78" — there are now 77 neighborhoods in Chicago — it's designed to be a "city within a city," where residents can live, work, learn and play, as the developer puts it. It will feature residences, company offices, retail stores, restaurants and cultural institutions, with a large park and other green space, a wide river walk connecting to the existing one to the north, and an education hub, proposed to be the DPI.
"You're talking about a campus within downtown Chicago, something you could never recreate," Bailey said.
To provide access, the city has agreed to spend $50 million this year to extend Wells Street, a north-south thoroughfare, through the site, connecting downtown to Chinatown, Bailey said.
Related Midwest, meanwhile, plans other major infrastructure improvements: moving the Metra tracks, creating entrances off of Roosevelt and Clark and building a new east-west street through the site. The work has yet to be approved by the city, and "it's not cheap," Bailey said, but he's confident it will happen.
Bailey said the company spent months touring developments in cities around the world to find out what makes a great neighborhood. The vast majority had a "great school" as the centerpiece, he said.
One of Related Midwest's sister companies in London is developing a 60-acre parcel in London called Kings Cross. In its early days, developers had a choice of a large retail store or a new arts college, which wouldn't generate as much rent. But "ultimately they thought the energy created by students" was a much better long-term investment, and it's paid off, he said.
Planners decided to make an education hub part of "The 78," and when they learned of the UI's plans for the Discovery Partners Institute, "we absolutely jumped at it," he said.
"We believe we have hit the jackpot, if you will, with this, both for the city and for our site and for Chicago's economy, to have these very, very smart students here on site, not only collaborating and learning there, but also collaborating and working with potential companies that would be on our site," he said.
The site is a contender for the new Amazon headquarters, which requires 8 million square feet of space. The 78 site is zoned for 13 million square feet, Bailey said.
He declined to say much about the bid, other than "DPI would be a very attractive neighbor for a company looking to innovate and to be relevant for the foreseeable future."
"I believe we've got a great shot to win," said Gov. Bruce Rauner, who met with Amazon in Seattle. "They love Illinois, they love our work force and transportation network. ... They love the U of I. They want a talent pool."