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Dearborn Park

Dearborn Park is one of the nation's most successful urban renewal projects. It was undertaken long before the current wave of urban renewal, during a time of flight from the city to the suburbs. However, Dearborn Park's creators had a passion for Chicago and the vision and expertise to ensure its success. Dearborn Park is perhaps the best example of Draper and Kramer's commitment to the heart of Chicago.

At the end of the 19th Century, land development was moving to Chicago's north side. With most of the south side's land already developed, railroad depots, tracks and yards prevented residential expansion in the South Loop. This railroad infrastructure had been constructed in the late 1800’s following the great Chicago Fire. As the infrastructure was put in place, a number of businesses grew up around it. In the South Loop one of the major industries dependent upon rail was the printing business. As printing thrived, the district became adorned by one new building after another, most commissioned to famous architects who had settled in Chicago to rebuild it after the fire. The South Loop district became celebrated by its architecture.

Both the rail industry and the conventional printing businesses in the area declined during the 1950’s and 1960’s and by 1970 the South Loop was burdened by abandoned rail yards, empty buildings and a tawdry residential population. It was past the time to remove the railyards and re-establish a dynamic residential neighborhood. The resulting around-the-clock life would restore a sense of safety and security to an area that had gone too long without it.

A powerhouse team consisting of Tom Ayers, President of Commonwealth Edison, Donald Graham, Chairman and CEO of Continental Bank and Gordon Metcalf, Chairman and CEO of Sears, Roebuck, were up to the task. Knowing the absolute necessity of teaming with others possessing superb housing development credentials, the team hurried to include Ferd Kramer, Chairman of Draper and Kramer, and Phil Klutznick, then Chairman of Urban Investment and Development Company.

The team then embarked on a tortuous, multi-year process of fund-raising, land acquisition talks, city negotiations and contending with competing developers. Finally in 1975, an initial 51 acres was acquired on what was up to that point proposed as the site for a new stadium for the Chicago Bears. A long sliver of land bordered by two of Chicago's most important streets, Clark Street on the west and State Street on the east, the site would be the southern gateway to the Loop. In 1977 the development team announced plans for Phase I of what now was the Dearborn Park development and construction was to start in November of that year. Phase I would be built on 24 acres on the north part of the site.

However, with almost 7 years of maneuvering and wrangling, the team chemistry was wearing thin and the effectiveness of management by part-time committee diminishing. With Dearborn Park’s future at risk, the rest of the team turned to their most experienced and motivated member, Draper and Kramer. Draper and Kramer rapidly assumed total control of the project, hiring only the most canny and sophisticated professionals to run the job.

Phase I of Dearborn Park ultimately grew to a mix of residential accommodations: three high-rise and mid-rise buildings with a total of 803 condominium units, 166 townhouses and a 190-unit building for the elderly.

With Draper and Kramer as the master planning entity, the Phase II balance of the site was sold to individual developers who constructed a diverse, generally lower-density residential product on the remaining portion of the 27 acre site.

The neighborhood of Dearborn Park includes play lots, jogging trails, two parks, swimming pools, tennis courts and distinctive outdoor landscaping. The development accomplished a dramatic change to the appearance of the once discarded South State Street, mending itself as seamlessly to the heart of Chicago as its northern counterparts. Not since the original Burnham-Wacker Plan was promulgated at the turn of the century, has any one residential project had as profound an effect on the City’s development.

In 1997, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lois Wille published "At Home in the Loop: How Clout and Community Built Chicago's Dearborn Park." The book tells the dramatic story of Dearborn Park and the people and organizations who made it possible. Wille writes, "Dearborn Park left a formula that other cities can use to turn fallow land into vibrant communities, and without big subsidies. It involves shared investment and shared risk on the part of local businesses and local government. It tempers political and social ideology with practicality and marketability. And it requires the grit and guts and civic spirit that built Dearborn Park."

Dearborn Park is largely credited with spurring South Loop development. It has been theorized that Dearborn Park led to the initial loft developments in Printer's Row, then to the huge numbers of loft developments in the general South Loop area that are ongoing today. Additionally, projects like Central Station and the boom in mid-south neighborhoods such as Douglas and Kenwood-Oakland have indirectly been influenced by Dearborn Park's success. Wille writes, "After years in which more structures were abandoned than built, the South Loop blossomed with $1.4 billion in new construction and renovation in less than two decades. Most of that investment occurred after 1983, when it was clear that Dearborn Park would be a success." Miles Berger, former chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission and managing partner of Heitman Financial Ltd., once said, "Dearborn Park was the key. It showed that you could do a development on the Near South Side and succeed. That was critical." And like its other truly groundbreaking, catalytic developments, Draper and Kramer's Dearborn Park has largely succeeded in achieving once unimaginable goals.