A view from Rezkoville Credit: Ryan Smith

On a warm afternoon in May, a pair of geese and their gaggle of goslings waddle single file over broken pavement and shaggy patches of weeds on their journey to the edge of the Chicago River. Elsewhere, red-winged blackbirds chirp their nasally songs while yellow butterflies flutter over wildflowers peeking through piles of rubble.

Welcome to the gnarled, grassy glen bounded by the river, Roosevelt Road, 16th, and Clark Streets—land informally known as Rezkoville, after Tony Rezko, the erstwhile developer and political fund-raiser. As has been the case for decades, the land’s identity—and future—remains in limbo. Since it stopped serving as a train yard in 1969, it’s been vacant but has lived on in the shadow of the city as a kind of forbidden wilderness, accidental nature preserve, homeless encampment, and—until recently—a barren ruin.

Eighteen months have passed since the overgrowth on the massive site was razed to the ground. The improvised forest was bulldozed, and the waist-high brush cut down. The 50 or so homeless people who’d been living in a tent village were ejected, and ten-foot-high fences were erected around the area’s perimeter to lock them—and the rest of the public—out of a field of dirt and pavement. Now that unbounded nature has begun to reclaim the area once again it resembles a ragged prairie emerging from the corpse of a postapocalyptic cityscape. In the field’s center, there are even hints of the kind of tallgrass prairie that once covered 170 million acres of North America like a thick carpet.

It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize how beautiful this space could be if it were cleaned up and curated as a true prairie reserve or reimagined as the next great park in our so-called City in a Garden. “Chicago could always use more park space, especially by the river,” says Juanita Irizarry, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Park. “We’re 12 on the list of [U.S.] cities in terms of park space per capita. We could do better.”

The wildlife of Rezkoville
The wildlife of Rezkoville

Or what would happen, as some have suggested in the past, if the land known as Rezkoville could return to its natural state as a crooked bend of the Chicago River nearly a century after the city engineered its straightening in 1928?

We may never know. The land’s developer, Chicago-based Related Midwest, has very different plans. Earlier this month the company revealed more of its grandiose proposal to turn this patch of river-born neverland into a sprawling megadevelopment—starting with a new name. Company officials are calling it “the 78” (as in the 78th neighborhood of Chicago). It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of urban development and green space conceived as an extension of Chicago’s business district, to be connected via a new Red Line station at 15th and Clark, new roads, and bike lanes.

Left: artist's depiction of what the 78 might look like; right: Rezkoville currently
Left: artist’s depiction of what the 78 might look like; right: Rezkoville currentlyCredit: Related Midwest/Ryan Smith

Neither Related Midwest nor the mayor’s office responded to requests for comment, but on its website the developer describes the 78 as a mixed-use neighborhood that would include commercial, residential, academic, cultural, and recreational areas. (The land already abuts Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park, which includes a newer field house and boathouse just south of 16th.)

The proposal includes offices, retail stores, and restaurants. And the big get is a Discovery Partners Institute campus, a $1.2 billion “research and innovation center” connected to the University of Illinois system that’s been hyped by Governor Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

According to the developer, all of that concrete and steel would be mitigated by plenty of “green and open space” and a half mile of developed riverfront similar in nature to the newly christened Chicago Riverwalk, the riverside pedestrian path downtown that’s populated with restaurants, bars, and recreational boat activity. An artist’s renderings of the 78 show patches of parks, grassy lawns, and greenery that are adjacent to or are surrounded by massive modern-looking buildings.  

An artist's rendering of the green space of the 78
An artist’s rendering of the green space of the 78Credit: Related Midwest

It’s fairly inspired as far as urban development goes, but consider that it could be transcendent—a 62-acre gem of green space nestled next to the Chicago River, like a mini version of New York City’s Central Park or Dallas’s ongoing project of creating a 10,000-acre nature district along the Trinity River.

“That would have been magic, but it’s probably too late. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, a nonprofit that in 2002 suggested that the river be “re-meandered” through Rezkoville to slow the river flow, helping to prevent fluctuations, meaning potentially fewer basements flooding. “It’s too bad that 20 years ago we didn’t make better plans.”

No one yet has put forth any alternatives to Related’s plan. “There haven’t been any public or private proposals to make the site a nature preserve or park,” the office of 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis said in an e-mailed statement. Solis, whose 25th Ward includes Rezkoville, hosted a neighborhood presentation for the project on May 10.

Yet city leaders, conservationists, and nature advocacy groups alike now seemed resigned to the fact that a significantly sized park or preserve on the property is a pipe dream. “We did informally float out the idea of a preserve there, but we were told that the land was so valuable it would never happen, as it was privately held,” says Frisbie.

A rendering of the 78 side by side with current Rezkoville
A rendering of the 78 side by side with current RezkovilleCredit: Related Midwest/Ryan Smith

The problem isn’t the desire to turn Rezkoville into a big park—it’s capitalism.

Namely, that the property is privately owned by General Mediterranean Holding SA, a general contracting company headed by Iraqi-British billionaire Nadhmi Auchi. The Luxembourg-based conglomerate purchased it from businessman Antoin “Tony” Rezko for $131 million back in 2005. Rezko, who was convicted in the Rod Blagojevich era and released from jail in 2015, bought the land from the city in March 2002 for $70 million. After a decade of dormancy, Related Midwest formed a joint venture in 2016 with GMH to develop the site.

Do the math: It’s 62 acres of barren land in an up-and-coming Chicago neighborhood controlled by a foreign company led by one of the thousand richest men in the world. Turning it into one big public park or green space is the longest of long shots because where’s the profit in that?

It’s a common story, says John Legge, the Chicago conservation director for environmental organization the Nature Conservancy.

“A lot of it has to do with legacy,” says Legge. “Preserving parklands or creating new sites are usually about public ownership. Sometimes it happens when a city takes control of a place due to disinvestment. . . . But with sites that have a lot of value like this—there’s not that same push.”

Private ownership of lands also tends to mean less public input and accountability—especially with Emanuel as mayor.

“Related Midwest have been quiet about their lands, and the mayor’s approach tends to be to follow the lead of the developer and do things as quickly as possible rather than engage with the public as to what’s best, especially in an election year,” says Irizarry.

The 78th is still in its infancy, and plans will be subject to city government approval, but the process to approve it will likely look much different than the Obama Presidential Center proposal, mostly due to the fact that the $350 million project in Jackson Park will be constructed on public land. The Chicago Plan Commission approved the Obama Foundation’s proposal last Thursday—plans that were ultimately altered from the original vision submitted in May 2017 due to community input.

“The Obama Foundation isn’t perfect, but we have access to them. They’re engaging with the public, and they’re more open about what they’re doing,” says Irizarry.

The best-case scenario, say advocates of green space, may be to hold the new owner of this swath of land to its current proposal, which calls for 40 percent green and open space, and make sure the public will have proper access to it. “You have to choose your battles and decide what’s realistic and what’s not,” says Frisbie. “We’re definitely not against this development. We want them to do something with it, and we’re looking forward to working with [Related].”

If the future does change for the 78, it will likely come not as a result of community input but because of the trillion-ton elephant in the room looming over Chicago—Amazon. The Seattle-based corporate behemoth is announcing the site of a new headquarters later this year, and Chicago is one of its finalists. The 78 is one of the city’s proposed sites, and it’s an attractive one because it meets all of the online retailer’s criteria for HQ2. Amazon has specified that it wants a greenfield site of approximately  100 acres in a metro area of more than one million people and 45 minutes within an international airport. In the final phase, the HQ2 campus will require eight million square feet and could threaten some of the proposed open and green space.

Amazon or not, the advocacy community and conservationists will need to be ready to fight for more open and green space, says Irizarry.

Rezkoville “is a once-in-a-hundred-year Daniel Burnham-like opportunity,” she says. “Chicago has a history of jumping prematurely into contracts that aren’t good deals. We shouldn’t just sell out to the highest bidder. Let’s slow this thing down and do the right thing here.”