360 Architects rendering of the proposed expansion
A “sea of parking.” A “wasteland.” These were just some of the terms residents of Chicago’s Near West Side neighborhood have used to describe the United Center’s footprint. This may soon change as preliminary plans were released this week for the redevelopment of some of the United Center’s eastern parking lots as part of an approximately 260,000 sq. ft. expansion. The preliminary plans call for new restaurants, bars, a team store, event space, and offices.
Around the country, large sports venues such as Seattle’s Safeco Center and Qwest Field, Kansas City’s Sprint Center, and Columbus’ Nationwide Arena have all reinvented themselves and served as catalysts for the development of bustling entertainment districts serving the neighborhoods surrounding them. The United Center could do the same in Chicago.
The Near West Side was once devastated by the 1968 Chicago riots, yet has managed to slowly rebuild itself from those ashes. In 2007, the community released the appropriately titled West Haven: Rising like the Phoenix Quality of Life Plan that outlined a comprehensive set of strategies to achieve vital neighborhood improvements. Through local community organizations, such as Near West Side Community Development Corporation, the neighborhood has accomplished housing redevelopment, main street improvements, and the securing of a new grocery store. Westhaven Park – a mixed-income and mixed-use community created through a major redevelopment of the former Henry Horner Homes public housing site, through the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation – has complemented these broader community improvements.
In 2008, the City of Chicago commissioned the Reconnecting Neighborhoods study to further examine the need for public transit, retail, and pedestrian access planning and investment around some of the Plan for Transformation communities, including the Near West Side. The Metropolitan Planning Council convened local residents as part of this process and documented local opinions. The study recommended several targeted street design, access, and retail strategies. A new CTA Elevated train station and potential United Center redevelopment were two important priorities the study recommended.
Reconnecting Neighborhoods demonstrated that there is enough local ridership demand in the area to support one new train station. While the study looked at both a potential Pink Line station at Madison Avenue and a Green Line station at Damen Avenue and Lake Street, it was finally determined through resident and stakeholder input that the Green Line was the best option because it serves both local residents, the United Center, and Malcolm X College. However, the study also determined that if the United Center and Malcolm X College were able to build more densely on their sites, there could be potential to generate enough ridership and revenue to build a Pink Line station as well. Residents felt strongly that more densely developed entertainment uses should go on the United Center’s east side, while neighborhood-serving uses could be built along Damen Avenue to complement local business development. In 2009, the Chicago Plan Commission approved the Reconnecting Neighborhoods study.
During the Reconnecting Neighborhoods process, the Metropolitan Planning Council was pleasantly surprised to find out the United Center management had similar thoughts, recognizing how the neighborhood was improving around the center. They had their own preliminary plans and asked us to do some analysis of economic benefits for the neighborhood and city. Based on those plans, the Metropolitan Planning Council determined that the expansion would create approximately 289 construction jobs, 505 new long-term service industry jobs, almost $35 million in additional income through the first 16 months, and almost $2 million in additional state and local tax revenues. Much is still to be determined with the expansion plans, but the potential is great to knit back the fabric of the Near West Side community and bring important economic benefits to the United Center venue, the neighborhood, and Chicago.