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Alderman wants independent review of traffic study that gave Bally's temporary casino plan a green light

Traffic study does little to alleviate neighbors' concerns over casino plan in River North
Traffic study does little to alleviate neighbors' concerns over casino plan in River North 03:16

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A new traffic study gives the green light to plans for Bally's temporary casino in the River North neighborhood, but the alderman neighbors say no way, especially with the study's reliance on casino visitors using the CTA at a time when crime is on the rise on mass transit.

The study – paid for by the temporary casino's developer, Bally's – found that the River North area will be able to handle the increase in traffic that comes from the casino.

But critics have cast doubt on the study's assertion that many casino customers will use the CTA to get to the temporary site in River North, rather than driving, despite spiking crime on mass transit and downtown.

As CBS 2's Tara Molina reports, River North is already a busy area of the city, even before the temporary casino begins operating as soon as next summer.

Any time of day, you can see busy traffic at multiple intersections smack dab in River North. That's why those we've heard from say it's important the city gets it right when the temporary casino gets up and running, calling for an independent review of the traffic study commissioned by Bally's

A Chicago landmark – the Medinah Temple in River North – has been vacant since Bloomingdales moved out in 2020, but it won't be for much longer, with plans to put the temporary Bally's casino there next year.

The choice to house the temporary casino at Medinah Temple as part of the mayor's casino plan was considered a big victory for the building's current owner, Friedman Properties.

River North developer Albert Friedman donated $6,000 to Mayor Lori Lightfoot's campaign in March, on the same day she narrowed casino bids from five to three.

Critics of the plan have raised public safety concerns about the mayor's pick for the temporary location for months, with crime spiking in the neighborhood; but those concerns are focused on the road right now, after the traffic study paid for by Bally's found the temporary casino won't create gridlock in River North.

There had been no River North traffic study conducted by the city before Medinah Temple was chosen.

"Bally's went and commissioned their own traffic study, which shockingly said this will be a perfect fit for downtown and River North," said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) who is opposed to both the temporary casino in his ward, and the permanent casino site in the neighboring 27th Ward.

Reilly is calling for a closer look and full review of the traffic study.

"What's really important is an independent third-party review; looking at the data and really asking objective questions about how that data was applied," he said.

The study claims 40% of those traveling to the casino will walk, bike, or use CTA. It also claims most of those working at the casino will walk, bike, or use public transit.

But with the current state of the CTA, and a rise in violent crime we've tracked for months here at CBS 2, the alderman echoed concerns we've heard from residents and neighborhood groups.

"There are bad crime stats in this neighborhood right now. The CTA remains unsafe. But yet the traffic consultant thinks people are going to walk to a casino with hundreds of dollars in their pockets," Reilly said. "We are already having violence in this train stations. I think it's unrealistic."

Parking is another hot topic. Medinah Temple doesn't have its own garage, but the study determined a need for 500 spaces for the temporary casino would be filled throughout existing garages in the area.

"Most casinos in urban centers have parking onsite, and it's free. Here parking will be in garages around the site, which cost $40 to $50 a night, which tells me very few people are going to use parking facilities to go to the casino. They're going to use rideshare. They're going to use charter buses," Reilly said.

But when it comes to rideshare and bus traffic, the study didn't share numbers or estimates, only projections on where the study determined vehicles and buses would drop off and pick up casino visitors.

"Go back to the drawing board and do it properly. Account for rideshare traffic which is going to be the bulk of the traffic here and account for the charter buses that bring a lot of our seniors to casinos," Reilly said.

Two local community groups, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents and the River North Residents Association also have raised concerns about the traffic study:

Statement from Deborah Gershbein President of Streeterville Organization of Active Residents:

"Last July, SOAR Representatives met with representatives of Bally's to discuss the interim casino site at Medinah Temple.  SOAR had two main concerns; traffic and safety. At that time their representatives informed us that they were doing a traffic study. SOAR does not believe the traffic study that was just published is an accurate assumption of the traffic congestion that will be caused by the addition of a casino in the area.  The site is surrounded by the two main north and south arteries in and out of the north end of downtown, Ohio and Ontario Streets.  Wabash on the east side of the building is a very narrow already congested street with no place for additional cars to go.  The garages that are around the proposed interim casino site are used by workers and residents of the area and are typically full.  This area is too small and too congested already to accommodate additional traffic.  Where will the shared rides, taxi's and buses stop?  If they do stop on any of these streets, it will block existing traffic. SOAR has evaluated many traffic studies in it's 47 year history and this one is terribly flawed. Our other main area of concern is safety. Undoubtedly, the casino will attract people who do not normally frequent the area looking for innocent victims with money going to and from the casino to prey on.  When SOAR representatives questioned the Bally Representatives if they had ever operated a casino in the heart of a major metropolitan area the answer was NO. We do not believe they are prepared to operate an interim casino at the Medinah Temple."

Statement from River North Residents Association

"In light of the current weekend congestion around this site, it's difficult to imagine how the report could find that "the temporary casino would be a very complimentary land use in the area…", as stated in Section V. Conclusions. However, our Development and Land Use Committee is reviewing the 112-page document and we'll issue a statement when they've finished their analysis."

The mayor's office, CTA, and Chicago Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment.

CBS 2 reached out to the casinos in Des Plaines and Hammond to gauge how many charter buses they see on a daily basis to get an idea of how that alone will look here, but the casinos have not yet responded.

We're also still waiting to hear back from a number of groups managing the parking garages in River North.

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