On a busy corner blocks from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, a sprawling brown-bricked building stands out from the skyscrapers and glass panes nearby.
The landmark Medinah Temple building, the roughly 130,000-square-foot structure at 600 N. Wabash Ave. has been vacant for almost two years after retail chain Macy’s moved its Bloomingdale’s store out of the site. Chicago developer Friedman Properties, a mainstay in River North real estate, is its current owner.
But under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan for Chicago’s long-awaited casino, the Medinah Temple could be the site of a temporary gambling complex — much to the ire of the local alderman and other opponents. Among those less than enthusiastic about the site is the casino developer, Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim.
Last week, Lightfoot chose to put forward a $1.74 billion casino, hotel and entertainment development at what is now the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant in River West. Rhode Island-based Bally’s, which owns and manages 14 casinos in 10 states, hopes to make this one the flagship of its chain.
But the plan to put the temporary casino inside Medinah Temple while the permanent structure is under construction has been widely panned by area residents, said Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward includes the temporary location. At a hearing Monday, he called the idea “horrible,” and he also balked at a newly introduced ordinance to allow liquor to be served inside the temporary casino.
Medinah Temple is currently located in a zone that prohibits additional liquor licenses. In explaining the proposed exception for casinos, Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar said it would be “consistent” with other establishments like sports stadiums such as Wrigley Field.
Reilly said that argument was “baloney.”
“No, that’s extraordinary,” Reilly said. “The difference is this would be a brand-new casino in the middle of a mixed-use neighborhood downtown, whereas the stadiums … have been around for decades and in Wrigley (Field)’s case, a century, which long predates our liquor moratorium.”
Mayekar noted the proposed temporary site is “surrounded” by alcohol-serving establishments and that, in fact, Reilly’s ward already has 748 active liquor licenses.
But the immediate commercial corridor around Medinah Temple has a 25% retail vacancy rate, Mayekar said, and that needs to be addressed.
“Vacancy begets vacancy, and we must activate the Medinah Temple,” Mayekar said, noting the building’s history of hosting entertainment that included the Shrine Circus.
If the temporary casino receives city and staff approval, Bally’s aims to open it by the second quarter of 2023, with the permanent casino slated to open in the first quarter of 2026.
The eleventh-hour shift from a planned temporary casino at a former Tribune Publishing warehouse at 700 W. Chicago Ave. came at the behest of the city, which approached Bally’s in late April with a shortlist of alternative sites and a short time to get it done.
Opponents have also noted that Friedman Properties CEO and Medinah Temple owner Albert Friedman — a past contributor to Lightfoot and other city leaders — gave the mayor’s campaign fund $6,000 on March 22, shortly before the city announced the building as the temporary location, instead of the developer’s choice.
City of Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said during Monday’s casino committee meeting that $2 million in “community benefits” from Bally’s will support police resources around the temporary casino site. She added that she believes the arrival of a temporary casino could even make the area safer.
“Increased economic opportunity and foot traffic brings eyes on the street, which brings safety,” Huang Bennett said. “The fact that the Medinah Temple is vacant creates safety issues and, as Samir noted, the city sees this development as an opportunity to revitalize the downtown area.”
The city is planning extensive roadwork improvements around the Freedom Center site, where Tribune Publishing’s printing plant would be supplanted by the entertainment complex. While Bally’s has an option on the adjacent Tribune warehouse, the city wants to get a jump on widening the Chicago Avenue bridge, derailing that as a temporary casino option, said Kim, the Bally’s chairman.
Though the 110-year-old, Moorish Revival-style Medinah Temple was not Kim’s first choice, it may be the only viable option.
Besides Medinah Temple, the alternative sites presented to Bally’s by the city included the Sheraton Grand Chicago in Streeterville and a handful of dead ends.
Kim said Bally’s reached out to several of the city’s suggested sites and most didn’t respond. The Sheraton wanted a “pretty big price,” making it economically unfeasible, he said.
“The only one that we could come to commercial terms with was Medinah,” Kim said.
The biggest drawback to the Medinah site is the lack of dedicated parking, Kim said.
Still, he said, the odds are strongly in favor of the Medinah site, though he’s still open to other ideas.
“I think that at this point, that’s where it realistically needs to happen,” Kim said. “So we’re going to do it there.”
Deborah Gershbein, president of SOAR, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, said members were “very, very surprised” to learn of the temporary casino plans “because it is such a congested area already, and I just can’t imagine how it would accommodate the additional traffic.”
“It just doesn’t make any sense at all, frankly,” Gershbein said. “We do think it would be detrimental to the community and our quality of life.”