Will Chicago Finally Get a New Supertall Skyscraper?

Drawing of the old Chicago Main Post Office redevelopment project by Booth Hansen

Drawing of the old Chicago Main Post Office redevelopment project by Booth Hansen

Yesterday, grand plans were unveiled for redeveloping Chicago’s old Main Post Office (433 West Van Buren Street), and the surrounding area.  They include the construction of five residential, hotel, and office skyscrapers perched atop a massive parking, retail, and transit podium spanning the Chicago River.

The Hyatt Center

The Hyatt Center

The highest profile portion of the project is a 120-story tower to be built just west of the river at 350 West Harrison Street.  The skyscraper was envisioned by the architecture firm of Booth Hansen as a single building which splits into two equal halves two-thirds of the way up.  Each remaining shaft is lens-shaped, with indented shafts on the ends, much like the single tower that makes of the nearby Hyatt Center (71 South Wacker Drive).


This massive tower is mimicked by two smaller residential towers at 800 South Wells Street.  A hotel tower at 536 South Canal Street is similar, but only consists of a single shaft.

All of these buildings are connected by a multi-story slab of parking, retail, and commercial space covering close to six city blocks.  It’s a huge amount of space to fill.  By the numbers:

  • 6,200,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space
  • 4,100,000 square feet of hotel space
  • 3,800,000 square feet of residential space
  • 2,000,000 square feet of office space

The developer, International Property Developers, sees it as a new gateway to Chicago, and wants to start construction by next year.  The project would be tackled in three phases, ending in 2022.

It’s a grand dream that has been received with some amount of skepticism.  This is the fourth time in the last decade or so that a tower of over 100 stories has been proposed for Chicago, and none of them have been built.

It’s been almost 40 years since Chicago climbed that high, and during those years seven other buildings have been built in other cities at least 100 stories tall in Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, and even in North Korea where people are starving.

The city’s architectural ego is still bruised from the Chicago Spire fiasco, which actually had a negative impact on the skyline (a hole, instead of a 150-story building).

Before that, there was Seven South Dearborn, which was supposed to be a 112-story, 1,567-foot-tall building that never got built.  Eventually that plot was filled with the far more modest One South Dearborn.


A drawing of the never-built Tall Tower along Chicago's lakefront.

A drawing of the never-built Tall Tower along Chicago’s lakefront.

And through hard work and determination, some people have managed to forget Tall Tower, the three-footed, needle-shaped broadcast mast by Cesar Pelli that was supposed to rise 2,000 feet along Lake Shore Drive.  The location where it was supposed to go is still a surface parking lot.

But it’s not even the tower portion that the skeptics find implausible.  According to an article in Crain’s Chicago Business, it’s the retail portion that is most worrisome.  It’s a heck of a lot of storefronts to build during a recession that is “over” on paper only.

Also troubling is the effect of erecting an 18-story wall of parking across a large chunk of the city.  These projects have been tried before in places like Houston, and they destroy the cohesiveness of the city.

Like New York and London, but unlike Los Angeles and Houston,  Chicago lives and breathes because of its ground-level pedestrian-friendly street grid.  This project destroys a large portion of that.  It takes a large chunk of the city’s urban environment and separates it from the rest of Chicago.  Or at least tries to.  As can be seen in projects like the Houston Center, the transition from street level to this urban island is a psychological barrier.  It does not add to the energy of the city, but rather depletes it.  It creates a black hole in the web of urban pathways that encourage human-scale living.

One of the things Chicago can be proud of is that it is unquestionably a “real city.”  And it gets a large part of that title through its urban life.  Balkanizing portions of the city into walled fortresses takes away from the whole.  The solution is simple.  Move the parking underground, and keep the non-tower components at a realistic height to blend in with the rest of the neighborhood.  Also, don’t cover huge stretches of streets and sidewalks with buildings.  It looks cool in a CAD drawing, or an architect’s competition, but in the real world it doesn’t work.

There are other flaws with this project, which will hopefully be addressed by the city before construction is allowed to start.

There are plenty of good points about this project, as well.  Especially in the area of transit.  It appears that this will finally be Chicago’s true intermodal transportation hub, incorporating links between:

  • Private transportation (cars and trucks)
  • Taxis
  • CTA buses
  • CTA Blue Line subway
  • Amtrak regional and long-distance trains
  • Amtrak high-speed rail
  • Metra regional rail
  • Greyhound regional and long-distance buses
  • Local water taxi service

There’s probably also an opportunity for the newly-emerging express bus carriers like MegaBus and Greyhound Express to participate.

Hopefully this project will move forward, though in an improved form.  And whether it gets built or not, it is our first chance to see how the city handles a project of this size without the benevolent dictator that guided its progress for the last couple of decades.

More information:

  • Cost: $3.5 billion
  • Podium: 18 stories above ground, five stories below ground, consisting of parking and retail space.
  • Direct connection to I-290
  • Eight-story pedestrian bridge across South Canal Street
  • Six-story pedestrian bridge across the Chicago River
  • 6.2 million square feet of retail, restaurant, parking space
  • 12,000 free parking spaces
  • 4.1 million square feet of hotel space
  • 7,500 hotel rooms
  • 2 million square feet of office space
  • 20-acre green roof
  • 10-12,000 construction jobs
  • 20,000 permanent jobs
  • Winter garden
  • Riverwalks promised on both sides of the Chicago River
  • Phase I: 2012-2015
    • Retail added to old Post Office.
    • Parking added to old Post Office.
    • Hotel added to old Post Office.
  • Phase II: 2016-2019
    • Hotel tower added west of South Canal Street, spanning I-290.
    • Pedestrian bridge connects new hotel tower to old Post Office.
    • 120-story mixed use tower erected on West Harrison Street.
    • Retail Podium added on West Harrison, spanning I-290.
  • Phase III: 2019-2022
    • Retail podium added east of Chicago River.
    • Pedestrian bridge spans West Harrison Street and the Chicago River connecting to Phase II
    • Two residential towers added
    • Parking garage added on South Wells Street (18 stories above ground, 5 stories below ground)

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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