Before Lincoln Yards: Chicago Mega-development History

Lincoln Yards, the controversial mega-development on the North Branch of the Chicago River, is just one of many enormous projects across the city. The sites, built by private developers with infusions of public money, aim to build entire neighborhoods from scratch. Obviously, these are “no little plans” as Daniel Burnham might say, and they have interesting antecedents dating back to the famous Burnham Plan. In order to understand the present building boom, let’s examine private mega-development history in Chicago.

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Burnham Plan Chicago 1909 map
The Burnham Plan is the spiritual predecessor to today’s trend of mega-developments. Image via Wikimedia.

Make No Little Plans

The origins of the Chicago mega-development stretch back to the late 1800s. As Chicago rebuilt from the Great Fire young hotshot architects flocked to the city. Within just a few years, William LeBaron Jenney, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, John Wellborn Root, and, of course, Daniel Burnham set up shop in the boomtown of the prairie. These architects reimagined the possibilities of architectural form with the skyscraper, which only whetted their appetite. Burnham especially saw the opportunity to remake what an industrial American city could look and feel like.

He oversaw the design and construction of the famous White City in 1893, which heralded Chicago’s arrival as a major world city. Burnham parlayed this success into a secondary career as a city planner. He exported his “City Beautiful” aesthetics into the new city plans for Manila, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Eventually, he turned his eye for grand Beaux Arts urban planning back on his hometown.

The famous Burnham Plan of Chicago reimagined the dusky, brawling industrial boomtown as a Paris on the prairies. Iconic elements of the cityscape like Grant Park, Museum Campus, Navy Pier, Wacker Drive and the Mag Mile are the legacy of Burnham’s plan. His sweeping vision, made famous by the (non!) apocryphal adage “make no little plans,” encouraged later developers to similarly monumental ambitions, perhaps seeding the idea for the instant neighborhoods of mega-developments like Lincoln Yards.

history of chicago transportation 20th century limited board of trade railroads
The bankruptcy of the rail lines left downtown Chicago with a lot of real estate that needed reusing. Image credit: Wikimedia

Bringing Residents Back to Downtown

The second Mayor Daley’s 21 years in office provides a more direct historical antecedent to today’s massive mega-developments. By the 1960s, suburbanization and the rise of TV culture meant that the Loop emptied out by 6pm. So the Daley Administration orchestrated residential redevelopments of old industrial spaces in and around the Loop.

The first neighborhood that City Hall redeveloped was the South Loop. Long a warren of factories, warehouses, and train depots, the South Loop offered a wealth of real estate which was suddenly available when the train lines went belly up. Station closures left hundreds of acres of empty train yards in the South Loop. The first mega-development to swoop in on this territory was Dearborn Park. The residential development stretches for a mile south of the rehabbed station, plopping an enormous amount of housing stock into an area which hadn’t seen it in over a century. We can visit the area on our private tours of downtown.

Dearborn Park Chicago mega-development
A skyline view of Dearborn Park in the South Loop. Its townhomes and greenery are the result of a mega-development in the ’70s and ’80s. Photo by Alan Light via flickr.

Similar residential or mixed-use redevelopments of old train yards soon sprang into action around downtown. Sale of air rights turned the old Illinois Central depot just east of Michigan Avenue into the Illinois Center and Lakeshore East. The Grand Central and Van Buren train yards had patchwork developments, most notably River City and the Roosevelt Collection. River North’s old harbor district, east of Michigan Avenue on the north bank, became Cityfront Center. The ground of Central Station, just west of Museum Campus and south of Grant Park, into a new neighborhood of highrises and lofts named Central Station. Mayor Daley even moved into a condo there in the early 90s. Our guests see almost all of these developments on our private tours of downtown or Chicago neighborhoods.

Rebuilding in the Heart of the Loop

Mega-projects are not just limited to old industrial districts, of course. Enchanted by Modernism’s glittering glass towers and seduced by the dreams of urban planners who rather hated urban spaces, City Hall decided that the historic heart of the Loop had to go. Historic structures like Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange and the enormous Sherman and Morrison Hotels met the wrecking ball in the ’60s and ’70s.

Apparently unsatisfied going one building at a time, the city sometimes demolished entire blocks of buildings in those years. Today’s Daley Center plaza used to be a dense collection of old buildings, including the beloved restaurant Henrici’s. City planners condemned and cleared them all to build Mayor Daley’s new Civic Center, which eventually bore his name. Across Dearborn Street, the city spent over a decade buying up every structure on Block 37, including the landmarked McCarthy Building. They all came down in 1989, leaving a gaping hole on the site for 20 years.

Block 37 construction North Loop Redevelopment Chicago mega-development
The demolition of Block 37 left a yawning gap in the heart of the Loop. Photo by David Wilson via flickr.

Bad as that sounds, it was nearly worse. City Hall created a North Loop Redevelopment District in 1973. In essence, they declared everything north of Washington and east of Clark to be a slum. Developers floated plans to demolish virtually everything and replace it with a set of interlocking towers, sky bridges, and pedways ala the Illinois Center. Thank goodness it never came to pass. Imagine no Marshall Field’s on State Street or no glittering Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The Debate Over Mega-Development Today

Big as these past projects were, the current building boom may outpace them all. Virtually all real estate along the North and South Branches of the Chicago River is being converted. The biggest break with the past is how privatized this phase of construction is. Under the Daleys, the city usually took the lead in clearing old structures and guiding redevelopment. These days such work is done by private developers like Sterling Bay and Related Midwest. All they need is occasional green lights from City Hall to remake Chicago as they see fit.

Mega-projects like Lincoln Yards and The 78 almost always create opposition, but the privatization of the process changes that dynamic. Sterling Bay and Related Midwest are not responsible to the people of Chicago, but to their shareholders. Thus, they have less incentive to listen to the communities being disrupted or hew to the extant cityscape. Despite this, they’re getting hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to fund construction. So far, that’s meant these big plans are meeting unprecedentedly big opposition.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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