Two soaring skyscrapers designed by the architect of New York’s iconic One World Trade Center are planned for the Chicago Spire site that has long languished as the Great Recession’s pockmark on the city’s skyline ambitions, the Chicago Tribune has learned.
Under a proposal developer Related Midwest is expected to unveil at a community meeting Tuesday, a 1,000-foot-tall tower and a slightly smaller but similar 850-foot tower would be erected on the dormant 2.2-acre site at 400 N. Lake Shore Drive, according to city sources familiar with the plans but not authorized to discuss them publicly. The towers would house condos, apartments and a hotel, the sources said.
If built on the marquee site along Lake Shore Drive, the two towers would be part of a dramatic refashioning of Chicago’s skyline amid a post-recession building boom. Against Chicago’s current landscape, the larger of the two towers would rank as the city’s seventh tallest building.
Stacked together, the two buildings’ combined 1,850 feet would measure almost as tall as the 2,000 feet that had been planned for the Chicago Spire, which would have been the city’s and nation’s tallest building. The pair of high rises, though, are expected to occupy more of the parcel’s surface than the slender, corkscrew-styled skyscraper previously contemplated at the site, which is just west across Lake Shore Drive from Navy Pier and wedged between the Chicago River and Ogden Slip.
Under a tentative agreement with the city, Related also would help pay for the construction of the long-contemplated DuSable Park on a 3.3-acre peninsula directly east of Lake Shore Drive and north of the Chicago River, the sources said. Former Mayor Harold Washington first planned the park in the 1980s to pay homage to African-American pioneer Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, but it has yet to come to fruition.
A spokeswoman for Related Midwest declined to comment on the project Friday. Renderings of the towers have not yet been made public. A city source who has reviewed the plans, however, said the towers are sheathed mostly in glass, feature multiple setbacks and taper notably toward the top.
The skyscrapers’ design has been led by prominent architect David Childs, a source familiar with the project confirmed. Childs, 77, is best known for his angular design of the nation’s tallest building, One World Trade Center, and is a consulting design partner in the New York office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. The firm’s Chicago office is behind many of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers, including Willis Tower and the former John Hancock Center in Chicago, and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Childs could not be reached for comment.
The plans call for the 1,000-foot tower to be built on the southern edge of the site along the Chicago River, where an existing riverwalk would be extended through the site to connect with the future DuSable Park, the city sources said. The south tower is expected to include condos and a 175-room hotel.
The 850-foot tower, which is expected to include apartments, would be built on the site’s northern edge along the Ogden Slip, where another existing walkway along the water would be extended to connect to the future park. A podium with lobbies and building amenities would connect the two towers, the city sources said.
Altogether, the structures would total 1.3 million square feet, with up to 850 residential units in addition to the 175 hotel rooms, the sources confirmed. It is unclear how many parking spaces would be allowed on the site, where a vehicle access ramp to lower Lake Shore Drive already has been built.
Whether the two towers get built likely hinges on the real estate market’s future conditions, but city officials have expressed cautious optimism about the plan’s chances and point to Related’s track record of completing major projects, the sources said.
The plan, which sources said for now does not have a name beyond its address, marks the latest in a series of ambitious proposals from developers for some of the city’s highest-profile properties that have gone undeveloped over the years.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has sought to unlock the potential of some of those long-stalled parcels by aggressively pushing the city’s sale of the old Michael Reese Hospital site in Bronzeville, forcing the transfer of ownership of the old main post office downtown and encouraging developers to move forward with mixed-use plans at the former Finkl Steel site in the Lincoln Park area and a large 62-acre tract along the Chicago River’s South Branch north of Chinatown. What also hasn’t hurt: a robust construction cycle driven in part by post-recession demand, continued corporate relocations to the Loop and an influx of young professionals and retiring baby boomers seeking to move to tony downtown neighborhoods.
As such, city planning officials have been eager to welcome Related’s proposal for the Streeterville site, but City Hall sources also cautioned the plans are still subject to zoning approval and community input. That process is run by downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, who wields strong influence over what the developer ultimately will be allowed to build. Reilly did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, but has announced plans for a community forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago that he will host with the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, a long-standing and highly organized community group.
A hole in the ground
The two Childs-designed towers would be built on a site best recognized for its 10-year-old gaping hole in the ground that is visible from Lake Shore Drive. That’s all that remains of what was supposed to have been a twisting, 2,000-foot tall Chicago Spire — had it not floundered amid financing woes at the onset of the recession a decade ago.
Today, there is fencing around the deep pit and a landscaped berm designed to block the unsightly construction remains from nearby town homes. There is little else to look at there, aside from a few faded beer cans and scattered concrete rubble.
When originally unveiled by developer Christopher Carly as the Fordham Spire in 2005, however, the building caused quite the stir. Designed by superstar Spanish-born architect Santiago Calatrava, who called his design “rule breaking,” the bold proposal symbolized a post-9/11 return to ambitious record-setting skyscrapers.
Then-developer and reality TV star Donald Trump, who had scaled back his River North tower after the terrorist attacks, lampooned the proposal in blunt terms now familiarly associated with the Republican president.
“In this climate, I would not want to build that building. Nor would I want to live in that building,” Trump said at the time. “Any bank that would put up money to build a building like that would be insane.”
The Fordham Spire proposal originally included 200 hotel rooms, up to 250 condos and 920,000 total square feet, but as financing concerns heightened, Carly and his Fordham Co. relinquished control of the project in 2006 to Dublin-based developer Garrett Kelleher, who renamed it the Chicago Spire. He promptly eliminated plans for a hotel and large broadcast tower and dramatically increased the number of condo units, ultimately receiving approval for up to 1,200 condos and 2.3 million square feet, overcoming density concerns from some Streeterville neighbors.
Construction began in June 2007 and by the following year, a circular hole 76-feet deep and 110 feet across had been dug, surrounded by caissons to support what was supposed to be the skyscraper’s concrete core. Kelleher sold 395 of the building’s 1,194 units, but work stopped in late 2008 amid financial pressures. Related Midwest gained control of the property in late 2014 after lengthy bankruptcy proceedings.
While new construction on the site would rid Chicago of one of its most well-known downtown eye sores, the project is likely to receive close scrutiny from active neighborhood organizations worried about increased density in Streeterville. The site is landlocked by the river, slip and Lake Shore Drive. Emanuel administration officials, though, hope neighbors might be appeased because the project calls for 350 fewer units than what previously was approved.
Still, it’s unclear how many parking spaces are proposed, a feature Reilly typically seeks to minimize. The proposal calls for vehicular access from an existing ramp on lower Lake Shore Drive and East North Water Street, a quiet residential street lined with three-story townhomes just west of the site.
Related Midwest and its New York-based parent The Related Companies have strong political ties to the mayor. Since 2013, Emanuel has received 25 political contributions totaling $117,000 from Related executives, including $30,000 each from Related’s billionaire chairman and majority owner Stephen Ross and the company’s CEO Jeff Blau. Emanuel’s official calendar also shows he has met with Blau at least once in the executive’s New York offices.
Related’s plans call for pedestrian access to 400 N. Lake Shore from landscaped walkways along the Chicago River’s northern bank and the southern edge of the Ogden Slip, a quiet harbor-like setting where a handful of boats dock. Both of those paths would extend under the Lake Shore Drive bridge to the 3.3-acre parcel of infill near the river’s mouth that long has been planned as DuSable Park.
In 1985, the city first approved an open space plan for the area. In 1987, Washington, the city’s first black mayor, named the park site after DuSable, the first non-native settler of Chicago who was a Haitian of French and African descent.
Since then, parks groups have pitched their plans for the site, including a sculpture of DuSable, murals of his trading post and an outdoor classroom. Calatrava eventually would design his own version, a planned $13.5 million park with two hills and trees at the site’s western edges to shield the park from noise and pollution from nearby traffic.
By 2007, a compromise was reached on the dueling versions, the land was transferred from the Park District to the city and the spire’s developer committed to pay $9 million toward the park on top of an additional $6 million the city and Park District had set aside. The area was used as a construction staging area for the Chicago Spire, but the park never was built. The city completed environmental remediation there in 2012, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Today, the site is home to a mound of dirt, rusted pipes and a dumpster filled with debris. Related Midwest, however, has incorporated the park into its proposal, offering a “contribution to build out the park,” a city source said. Sources declined to identify how much Related had offered to spend on the park, and it has yet to be decided whether the developer or the city would build it.
Work is expected to begin next year, however, on seawall reconstruction on the parkland peninsula. The Park District has $5 million in EPA funding that is expected to cover the cost of that work, sources said.
Will it get built?
Given the history of the spire site, a natural question will linger: Will these towers actually get built?
The proposal likely comes in the back end of a real estate cycle that saw more than 60 construction cranes dotting the city’s skyline last year, a new high since the recession. Workers this week placed the final beam atop Related’s 843-foot luxury condo high rise One Bennett Park just a block away. Across the river, Magellan Development and the Wanda Group’s 1,191-foot Vista Tower continues to rise high above Wacker Drive where, upon completion, it will rank as Chicago’s third tallest building behind the Willis and Trump towers.
Just to the west in Streeterville, developers CIM Group and Golub & Co. have proposed another gigantic 1,422-foot hotel and condo high rise on a surface parking lot behind Tribune Tower. If built, that skyscraper would surpass Trump Tower as the city’s second tallest.
Also in the high-rise residential market: Crescent Heights’ 887-foot One Grant Park is under construction in the South Loop. Other mega residential buildings with plans underway include One Chicago Square East Tower, a 1,046-foot skyscraper planned on a block-sized Holy Name Cathedral parking lot in River North; the 950-foot Wolf Point South; the 875-foot Lake Shore East I Tower; the 832-foot 1000 S. Michigan tower and the 800-foot high rise planned for 110 N. Wacker.
Including these two latest proposed towers, Chicago has 11 planned or under-construction buildings of at least 800 feet in height. That’s 10,696 feet in combined height — or roughly the equivalent of stacking seven Willis Towers on top each other. So, if these new plans for 400 N. Lake Shore are not to go the way of the Chicago Spire, Related will have to establish the project in a hyper-competitive luxury condo market and, unlike 2008, hope the national economy continues to cooperate.