Chicago Casino: Not IF, but WHEN and WHERE

Chicago Architecture Foundation meeting about the Chicago casino

For the last few decades Chicago’s mayors have been hell-bent on building a casino in the city. What they haven’t been too interested in is asking the public its opinion on the matter.

Finally a group of people threw up their metaphorical hands and said, “If the politicians won’t ask, we will.” To that end, the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Chicago Reader co-sponsored an event at the Chicago Theater (175 North State Street) last night to explore the issue.

Marquee for the Chicago Architecture Foundation meeting about the Chicago casinoUnder the umbrella of CAF’s “Chicago Debates” program, four panelists took up the issue and answered questions from the audience. The panelists were

  • Kim Goluska, a former partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
  • John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee, now with the Congress for the New Urbanism
  • Dennis Judd, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Mick Dunkie, a writer for the Chicago Reader

The moderator was Edward Lifson, former public radio journalist.

There were a number of interesting items brought up during the debate, primarily because this was a gathering of people who actually know about architecture, urban development, and how cities work. This wasn’t a meeting of angry senior citizen NIMBYs venting their rage about the world. This was thoughtful, insightful discussion about the future of Chicago. Unfortunately, such discussions are so very rarely open to the public at large without a paid admission or membership.

The one thing everyone in attendance seemed to agree on is that a casino is coming to Chicago. While the enabling legislation may be sitting on Governor Pat Quinn’s desk indefinitely, he won’t be governor indefinitely, and even if he wins re-election, the forces in favor of a casino will keep trying to overturn his veto until they finally get what they want. It’s not a matter of if Chicago will have a casino, but when.

Perhaps the easiest way to give you a taste of what was said is with bullet points. For the most part these will be unattributed for simplicity’s sake.

  • All of the panelists and most of the audience agreed that the casino should be in downtown Chicago.  The Near North Side and even McCormick Place are too far away to maximize the benefit of the extra visitors a casino would attract.
  • For those who believed it should be farther out, John Norquist related his experience with Potawatomi Bingo Casino.  While the television commercials claim Potawatomi is “in downtown Milwaukee,” it is actually in an area known as The Valley [Menomonee River Valley].  In terms of distance, it would be like putting the casino in Bronzeville, the United Center, or Diversey Harbor.  Others described its effect on downtown Milwaukee as  a big “sucking sound.”
  • The Thompson CenterThe Thompson Center (100 West Randolph Street) could be converted into a casino.  It is a terrible office building.  It has a huge atrium.  It’s in the heart of the theater district, which would encourage visitors to see shows and eat at local restaurants.  The state could save money by selling the building and moving state workers into rental office, taking advantage of the current low rents.  Reusing an existing building is more environmentally friendly than building a new building.  It also has a Pedway connection to City Hall so that the bags of graft and kickback money can get to local bureaucrats and politicians easily.
  • The Congress Hotel (520 South Michigan Avenue) would be a good location for a casino.  Vienna’s casino is also located in an old hotel and it works well.  The casino could be located underneath the hotel and in adjacent buildings built on the neighboring vacant lots.
  • A casino could be put in the unused top floors of Macy’s on State(111 North State Street), which has been done in other department stores in other cities.  It forces people to go through the retail space and possibly spend some cash on their way to and from the casino. Reusing an existing building is more environmentally friendly than building a new building.

    Macy's on State Street

    Macy's on State Street

  • “Any city that desperately needs to do this to get the gaming revenue shouldn’t do it.  That’s not what it’s about.” – Kim Goluska
  • The casino should not take up valuable lakefront space since almost all casinos are currently designed to keep people looking inward, it would be a waste of prime space.
  • No one liked the idea of putting a casino on Navy Pier.
  • An area slightly south of the Loop was suggested, but not too close to McCormick Place.  The casino shouldn’t be isolated from the rest of the city.  They should not be a fortress.
  • A casino should contribute to the urban fabric, architecturally, socially, and culturally.
  • “I can tell you right now there are dollar signs in the eyes of people at City Hall.  You hear them talk with envy about visiting the casinos in northern Indiana and seeing all of the Illinois license plates there.  They’re already counting the money.  And certain people would love to get this casino deal done now so that when they do leave office, potentially to go somewhere else, this is on their record.” – Mick Dunkie
  • Any casino project has to be driven by the private and civic sectors, not the politicians.  Politicians only think of the short-term because they know they won’t be in office very long.  Civic and commercial leaders think about the long term, which is good and necessary when planning a development like a casino that can dramatically shape the future of a city.  Examples of recent “top-down” projects being driven by politicians with little public enthusiasm include the failed Chicago 2016 Olympic bid, and the upcoming NATO and G8 conferences.
  • An estimated 50,000-60,000 people would visit a downtown Chicago casino each day.
  • United States Post Office Chicago Main

    Former main United States Post Office

    The old post office  (433 West Van Buren Street) was suggested as a location.  It has the benefits of being vacant, huge, and near downtown.  It could also handle a hotel and restaurants.  However, it is isolated from the rest of the city and it is very likely that visitors would simply drive to the casino, lose their money, and then drive home without experiencing the rest of the city and spreading their money around.

  • The main value in a Chicago casino isn’t in catering to the locals, it’s in bringing in new visitors who would otherwise go to Indiana to gamble.
  • Why are we thinking about one big casino?  Why not several smaller casinos in several downtown hotels like the Palmer House, the Congress Hotel, and the Hilton Chicago?
  • Maybe instead of the casino being owned by the state, it should be owned by a civic group, and the money from the casino could go to arts programs.
  • McCormick Place makes sense because it’s the southern anchor of an enormous tourist complex stretching to Navy Pier.  But McCormick Place is very isolated from the rest of the city.  If the casino is done very well by a professional company it will end up with some of the best hotels, restaurants, and entertainment in the city, and that eliminates the need for conventioneers and other visitors to visit State Street, Michigan Avenue, and other parts of the city.
  • Trump Tower – There’s space for a casino in all of the empty retail at the base.
  • The Chicago Spire – A casino could be the economic engine to restart this project.


Author: Editor

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

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