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Construction Of Chicago’s New Neighborhood ‘The 78’ Pushes Through Pandemic

That neighborhood is slowly emerging on a 62-acre former railroad yard adjacent to the Chicago River, sandwiched between the South Loop and Chinatown.

A sole worker walks through "The 78" construction site on March 13, 2020.
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SOUTH LOOP — The coronavirus outbreak has shut down most city activity, from schools to businesses to entertainment and cultural institutions.

But work continues on the infrastructure for one of city’s most ambitious real estate development projects in recent history: “The 78,” the $7 billion dollar community being touted as Chicago’s 78th neighborhood. That neighborhood is slowly emerging on a 62-acre former railroad yard adjacent to the Chicago River, sandwiched between the South Loop and Chinatown.

City-contracted workers this month have reached a milestone of sorts, with the installation of key utilities for the Wells-Wentworth Connector, the main transportation network connecting “The 78” with the South Loop to the north and Chinatown to the south. Those utilities include traffic signal technology, water, sewers and electricity.

Chicago Department of Transportation officials say that work is not slated to be postponed any time in the near future, despite other city-related shutdowns to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The contractors working on ‘The 78’ are telling us they are all planning to continue working,” said Chicago Dept. of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey, who said that most other CDOT-related construction and maintenance projects are also not being delayed.

“This is a good time to be working now if you are on the street, because there’s much less traffic and congestion, since everyone’s home,” Claffey said.

Claffey said that contractors are now required by CDOT to follow all safety protocols with regards to the coronavirus outbreak, including frequent hand washing and maintaining social distance of at least six feet. 

Contractors say they are on schedule with their initial plan to complete the Wells-Wentworth Connector by late 2021. That involves the extension of Wells Street from Roosevelt Road to 17th Street, which will then connect via an “S” curve to Wentworth Avenue at 18th Street. The road will include raised bike lanes on either side of the two-lane street, along with two raised mid-block crossings.

Credit: Chicago Dept. of Transportation
A rendering of Wells Street in “The 78”, showing the raised bike lanes that flank the two lane roadway.

As part of the construction, workers will have to demolish and relocate an existing railroad overpass used by Metra. The demolition of the overpass is still scheduled to take place in late spring, dependent on approvals by the five different railroad entities that have claims to the tracks.

Crews are now constructing a connector sewer system under the intersection of what will be 15th and Wells streets, which will link with the Deep Tunnel.

“This will be a central artery in ‘The 78’ for sewer and storm water,” said Sonny Jaramilla, the project manager for WSP, the construction management consultant working for CDOT.

Credit: John Owens/Block Club Chicago
Sonny Jaramilla, the construction manager for the Wells-Wentworth Connector project, points at a mock-up of the sidewalk and raised bike lane which will flank the extension of Wells Street in the new “78” neighborhood. Photo taken on March 13, 2020.

Paving for the extension of Wells Street is still slated to start this summer, Claffey said. A new CTA Red Line stop at 15th Street is also slated to be part of the infrastructure improvements in the development.

“You’ve got all modes of transportation going on here, from the bike lanes to the roadway to Metra, the freight trains, the CTA, the waterway,” Jaramilla said. “There’s so many different features and so many different priorities for different groups. The biggest challenge will be communication and coordinating.”

Credit: John Owens/Block Club Chicago
Sonny Jaramilla (left), the construction manager for the Wells-Wentworth Connector project, oversees the construction of a sewer junction chamber at “The 78” construction site. It will connect with an outlet of the Deep Tunnel. Photo taken on March 13, 2020.

The project is primarily being funded by $700 million in TIF subsidies from city. But the developer, Related Midwest, is helping to defray costs for the installation of the utilities and construction of a new segment of 15th Street from Wells to Clark. Related Midwest will also finance a Riverwalk buildout on the Chicago River, which is located on the western boundary of the new neighborhood.

Last month, the developer also announced it was donating land on the site for an “innovation center’ built by the University of Illinois Systems Discovery Partners Institute.

“Within the next year, you’’ll see some real tangible things,” Jaramilla said.

Credit: John Owens/Block Club Chicago
Traffic cones representing installed underground utilities at the Wells-Wentworth Connector construction site in the new “78” neighborhood. Photo taken on March 13, 2020.

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