People living in the West Loop are getting a better understanding of their potential new neighbor: a 22-story office tower to be erected on a surface parking lot currently owned by Old Saint Patrick’s Church.
The Old Saint Patrick’s Tower (not its official name, just an allonym we’re using here) is the latest in a string of minor skyscrapers to go up in the neighborhood, which is rapidly transforming from a wasteland of asphalt lots and junk office space into a functioning, trendy live-work-play neighborhood. But growth is not without its growing pains, in the West Loop, or anywhere else; and in a story that’s been repeated in a hundreds of neighborhoods across the country, it’s the urban pioneers who suffer.
In this case, it’s the residents of The Edge (210 South Des Plaines Street), and The Haberdasher Square Lofts (728 West Jackson Boulevard) who are most affected. At a recent community forum, people expressed their fears about both light and darkness.
Light, in the sense that some of the newer skyscrapers closer to the Chicago River reflect the setting sun at them with Archimedian viciousness. The Heller International Building (500 West Monroe) and the USG tower (550 West Adams) are two prime offenders. It may sound like trifling, but I know from first hand experience that these buildings conspire with the sun to turn lovely spring days into lurid summer infernos that no air conditioner can best.
At the meeting, the residents were assured by a lawyer for the developers that the building would be coated with “a new generation” of glass that manages to be energy-efficient, while cutting down on reflections.
That was enough to assuage fears, until someone pointed out that the sun isn’t going to be that big a problem, because the new tower will be so close to their homes that they won’t be able to see the skyline anymore. And so begins yet another classic battle of the views.
When first moved to Chicago years ago I lived at what is now called the Century Tower (182 West Lake Street). I had picture-perfect views of the Chicago River. Those views are now gone. Destroyed by the construction of 200 Squared (210 North Wells Street). When I lived at The Shoreham (400 East South Water Street), I had amazing views of Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. Until The Chandler (450 East Waterside Drive) went up next door. It’s fact of urban life: If you have a great view, sooner or later someone will obstruct it.
Look at all the money spent by residents of the John Hancock Center (875 North Michigan Avenue) to block Fourth Presbyterian Church from erecting its proposed tower across the street. They threw out all kinds of red herrings about noise and traffic and congestion to justify their positions, but the bottom line was that they didn’t want their views blocked. The Hancock people got the church project killed. But unlike the Hancock Center, The Edge isn’t populated by state Supreme Court justices, television stars, and former politicians. It just has ordinary people. People who will have to, sooner or later, come to grips with the fact that as urban pioneers, they moved into a neighborhood and helped it grow. And in return, the neighborhood is taking their view away. It’s just what happens.
Some residents of The Edge feel betrayed by the church. They recall representatives of Old Saint Pat’s telling them that if the surface parking lot at Adams and Des Plaines was developed, it would be for a five-story “spiritual center,” and not for a 22-story office tower.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be compromises and solutions.
We’ll deal with the most outrageous proposal first, simply because it would make everyone happy, and is the most interesting. It’s the idea that the Old Saint Pat’s Tower be built on Heritage Green Park. In exchange, the park would be moved to the location where the tower is currently proposed. It’s an outlandish land swap, falls into that sit-com cliché “it’s so crazy, it just might work.” Alderman Fioretti pledged to bring the land swap idea to the Chicago Park District. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it. If so, I call dibs on the headline “Turf War.”
On the compromise front, Larry Gage, president of the Fulton River District Association says the architects at Solomon Cordwell Buenz have agreed to take a second look at the design to see if it can be made less offensive to the neighbors. At the meeting at Francis Xavier Warde School, it was noted that the ugliest side of the proposed office tower faces The Edge. So, some effort is going to be put into figuring out if there’s a way to make it better.
Perhaps more effective, is the notion that the building’s setback could be relocated. Right now, there is about a 35-foot setback on the building’s south side. This was included by the designers so that they could get permission from the city to build the building a little taller. The architects have been asked to re-examine their design to see if the setback can be moved to the west side of the building, where the majority of the obstructed views would be. It may not sound like much, but 35 feet, combined with the width of the street and sidewalk, plus The Edge’s own substantial east-facing setback could work just enough geometric magic to lessen the impact of the building on a lot of views. Using Department of Zoning maps, we estimate the total distance between the two towers could be up to 148 feet. We’ll wait to hear from the experts to find out if we’re right.
Those experts will get a chance to talk to the public again in June. Because people were only given two days notice of the public meeting, Alderman Fioretti’s office has asked the developer to come back in two weeks for a proper meeting. Hopefully by then, the architects will have a new building design that works better for the neighbors.