Bally’s Corporation displayed some of the adjustments it has made in planning for its $1.7 billion casino in downtown Chicago on Monday night, offering more details on configurations to try and alleviate the concern over traffic congestion expressed by River West residents.
Speaking at a community panel hosted by the city of Chicago, Bally’s Vice President Chris Jewett, traffic consultant Tim Doron, and Senior Vice President of Bally’s West Regional Operations Ameet Patel highlighted changes made following community engagement and handled the bulk of the questions. Christine Carlyle, director of planning for the SCB architectural firm, and Brad McCauley, a landscape architect from Site Design Group, also answered questions, as did representatives from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the Chicago Police Department.
Bally’s presentation lasted just shy of one hour, with the rest of the meeting devoted to public comment and questions. That part of the evening featured a varied range of responses, with some citing the positive effects of Bally’s outreach to certain communities. Others offered pointed critiques and worries regarding crime, traffic, and light pollution in the neighborhoods closest to the proposed Freedom Center site, which is currently home to the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
There was little discussion devoted to the temporary casino expected to open next summer at Medinah Temple in nearby River North. The temporary casino is expected to operate for three years before a targeted 2026 opening for the permanent venue.
A challenge to streamline traffic without widening roads
— NBC Chicago (@nbcchicago) December 6, 2022
Doron, a senior consultant at Fish Transportation Group, is intimately familiar with Planned Development 1426, the parcel of land the casino will be built upon. He authored the original traffic development plan in 2018 when it was rezoned. Citing a traffic study commissioned by Bally’s, Doron noted there would be less rush-hour traffic around the casino area near Chicago and Halsted Avenues while pointing out there would be higher volumes of traffic later at night.
One of the ways Doron and Bally’s are hoping to alleviate some of the traffic congestion is with the creation of a new street, Jefferson Avenue, that would run from Chicago Avenue to Grand Avenue. Jefferson Avenue would be built during the first phase of construction, when the casino, 500-room hotel, and 3,000-seat indoor venue are also built.
“There will be more traffic generated by the casino during certain hours, [but] during the basic rush hours, there will be less because people don’t come to casinos [during those times],” Doron said. “Traffic should be mitigated by the fact that it’s different hours. In full transparency, late at night, there will be more traffic. Late at night, later in the evening when there isn’t heavy background traffic. This isn’t like suburban Schaumburg. We cannot widen our roads. The city wants to protect pedestrians and bicycles and so on. Suffice to say, we’ve done everything we can to mitigate traffic during the rush hour.”
In what may have been a preemptive pushback to Alderman Brendan Reilly’s complaints about the traffic study surrounding the temporary venue in his ward earlier this fall, Doron said the traffic study for the permanent casino was conducted “to take out as much guesswork out as possible.” He added that the trip standards used are agreed upon by both the Chicago Department of Transportation and Institute of Transportation Engineers.
Doron pointed out other traffic improvements that will be made include synchronization of lights as far as the intersection of Chicago, Ogden, and Milwaukee Avenues; a wider Chicago Avenue Bridge; and the eventual extension of Erie and Huron Streets to connect with Jefferson Avenue. Other amenities include two dedicated Divvy bike stations, protections for pedestrians, and bus transportation upgrades on Chicago Avenue.
The Bally’s group also talked about a more expansive green area as part of the back-and-forth with the community, which included scrapping plans for a pedestrian bridge and a 3,000-seat outdoor entertainment venue. The latter amenity will now be indoors and include an entrance point with the Chicago River visible.
Patel addresses concerns over leaseback deal
Plans to build a permanent casino and entertainment district in Chicago’s River West continue to evolve based on feedback from residents, Bally’s officials said at a community engagement meeting for the project Monday evening. https://t.co/nYqMNgfhTi
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) December 6, 2022
Bally’s partnered with a private investor — revealed during Monday night’s meeting as Oak Street Real Estate Capital — late last month for a leaseback program on the Freedom Center site. Oak Street invested $200 million and can fund up to an additional $300 million of the project as Bally’s reaches certain construction milestones.
When a commenter raised questions about Bally’s business dealings prior to its rebranding from Twin River in 2020 (Twin River emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2014 after eliminating nearly half its debt through reorganization prior to lead executive Soo Kim‘s arrival in 2016), Patel maintained that the leaseback would prove beneficial in the long run.
“We haven’t filed for bankruptcy. I don’t know where you get this from,” Patel said. “Our financial standing is in great order. Not average, not above average — it’s in great order. The sale leaseback deal that you are mentioning is not a detriment, it’s a plus to financing the project. It shows our commitment, it shows our financial stability, and it shows that we’re looking at this project long term. … We want to run a class operation so that it becomes a part of the community.”
One area that remains unsettled is how Bally’s plans to arrive at its goal of 25% minority investment. In its proposal to the city, Bally’s hoped to use a crowdsourcing method with an entry point as low as $250 as a means of trying to create generational wealth in communities looking to improve their standings. Jewett said Bally’s is still waiting on approval from the IGB for the crowdsourcing, hoping to have an answer by early next year while acknowledge people are “antsy” about the lack of details on the process to date.
How we got here
Lightfoot picked the Bally’s proposal over ones from Rush Street and Hard Rock in early May as the city’s preferred casino operator, and the city council voted its approval less than three weeks later. Bally’s submitted its license application to the Illinois Gaming Board in August.
Chicago was one of six locations granted a casino license in the 2019 gaming expansion bill that Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law which also legalized sports wagering in the state. Illinois has generated more than $225 million in state tax revenue through casino gaming the first 10 months of the year.
Image courtesy of Bally’s RFP submitted to the City of Chicago