Will a Scrawnier Wolf Get Everyone on Point?

Wolf Point

The current champion for largest and most controversial development in downtown Chicago (that actually has a chance of happening) is making its way through the approval process largely unscathed.

Wolf Point (350 North Orleans Street) is the lupine child of Houston-based global mega-developer Hines, and Chicago-based local really-wanna-be-huge-someday developer Magellan.  Their architect, Pelli Clarke Pelli has made some changes to the three-tower project on the Chicago River in order to appease neighborhood naysayers, but it remains mostly what was presented at the public meeting we covered earlier this year.

Wolf PointBroadly speaking, what Hines and Magellan have done to make the project more visually appealing is to give the towers more taper at their bases, opening up more sight lines and more room for landscaping.  They’ve also connected the towers to the riverwalk, making them an active part of the Wolf Point experience, rather than a corporate castle overlooking the peasants along the moat.

The biggest, and perhaps most legitimate, complaint against Wolf Point is traffic.  Getting around the immediate area is already difficult, and at rush hours it’s a nightmare.  Any development of Wolf Point, short of sinking it into the river, will mean more traffic.  It’s up to the developer to minimize the impact, and it’s up to the NIMBY groups to understand that they will have to make sacrifices for others, just as those who came earlier made sacrifices for them.

According to the Chicago Journal, the traffic engineering firm Kenig, Lindgren, O’Hare, Aboona (KLOA) has done traffic studies of the Wolf Point at least five times now.  Once for the developers, and four more times when that study and its subsequent revisions were rejected by 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly.

Whether the Wolf Point plan in its current form is enough to get a thumb’s up from the alderman remains to be seen.  It is still being pounded by local NIMBY group Friends of Wolf Point, which believes the neighborhood is simply too crowded for a project of this size.  However, while the members may indeed be friends of the Point, they are also fans of their property values, which stand to take a hit if the project is built and blocks their views.

Wolf PointIt’s a story we hear over and over in this city from the Loop to Streeterville to the Gold Coast and now even in the West and South Loops — People say the neighborhood is fine when they buy their condos and get their views.  But then when someone else wants a room with a view, suddenly there’s no more room for anyone else.  In the short decade this blog has been publishing, one would have to be a polydactyl cat to count the number of Chicago skyscrapers  killed by people acting in their own self-interest, and not in the interest of the greater development of the city.

But there is duplicity on both sides.  The developers, for example, are sticking to the fictional notion of this being a “transit oriented” development.  The project has over 1,200 parking spaces.  That alone makes it anti-transit.  But you can’t blame the developers.  They’re trying to attract law firms and other companies whose Type-A decision-makers come to work in 5-series BMW’s, not on the Brown Line.  Real estate agents are going to gush about prestige skyline views, easy access to the Ohio Street ramp, and plenty of parking; not lockups for bicycles, a nearby Ace Hardware store, and organic free-range conflict-free electric ZipCar spaces.

To wit:

  • The developer claims the project is “transit friendly” because many of the residences in the West tower will be studios, so they’ll attract car-free city-dwellers.  However, the developer that’s doing the West tower (Magellan) has been building apartment buildings with larger numbers of bedrooms lately, and is just completing the city’s first apartment building with purpose-built three-bedroom apartments.
  • The developer claims the Merchandise Mart L stop is one block away.  It is not, especially for people living in the West tower, which is where the people will live.  It is 2.5 blocks away.  Not a deal-breaker, but there’s no need to fudge the numbers.
  • The developer touts Purple Line service from Merchandise Mart.  The Purple Line is a non-fator for residents because it only operates limited hours during the week and not at all on the weekend. It might as well not exist.
  • Wolf PointThe developer touts Blue, Pink, Orange, Green CTA train service four blocks away at the Clark/Lake station.  It is actually 6.5 blocks to the Pink, Orange, and Green trains.   It is 4.5 blocks to the Blue train.  Not a deal-breaker, but certainly not a pleasant walk to make in the winter, especially with the way the wind whips down the river.
  • The developer touts CTA bus route 11 service being nearby.  The 11 bus is a non-factor for residents.  It only runs weekdays and only during business hours. In addition, starting December 16th the CTA is cutting service on this route.  It might as well not exist.
  • The developer touts CTA bus route 125 service being nearby.  The 125 bus is a non-factor for residents.  It only runs a few hours each weekday — only morning and evening rush hours. It might as well not exist.
  • The developer touts “numerous other bus routes within walking distance.”  The developer clearly doesn’t know the difference between a bus route and a rush-hour shuttle.  Moreover, we’d like to see figures not on “walking distance” but on “grocery-carrying distance.”
  • The developer touts proximity to Ogilvie Station (9-13 blocks, depending on time of day), and Union Station (14 blocks away).  Apparently, the developer has never tried to walk that route, where the sidewalks are inadequate or nonexistent, and pedestrians have to compete with train and truck traffic.  It’s a nightmare at the best of times.  Good luck doing it in the summer or winter without messing up your suit.
  • The developer touts “sidewalks provided on all streets.”  Really?  There aren’t sidewalks on the very block of Canal Street that is owned by the developer.
This project is not “transit oriented.”  We know “transit oriented.”  This isn’t it.  But perhaps it might be — someday.  With three huge towers, lots of secretaries, middle managers, and even a few hundred full-time residents moving onto the Point, maybe CTA might actually be forced to take transit service in River North seriously for a change.  (Not that we blame CTA, it can only do so much with the limited funding it has available.)
Lots of pictures after the list of changes:
  • The East and West towers have been repositioned so that they frame the larger South tower, which helps relieve the visual wall they formerly created.
  • The towers have been tapered more at the base, which combined with the glassed-in ground floor lobbies is intended to make the entire site feel more open.  For an example of how this works, take a walk around 111 South Wacker.  What should have been a very dark space is incredibly light and open thanks to this award-winning technique from our friends over at Goettsch Partners.
  • The revised site plan (see below) appears far more coherent, but that may be because instead of using multiple colors for trees, they’re all just green now.
  • Circulator driveway is now longer and appears able to handle more traffic.
  • Second garage ramp has been removed from the west side of the project.
  • Fountain and pedestrian plaza in driveway median has been replaced with a statue and more greenery.
  • South tower appears to bow out more in the southern end.
  • Long rows of concrete steps have been replaced with a lawn and a single path.
  • A river overlook has been created at the southernmost point of the project.
  • Distance from the South tower base to the water is now 52 feet, four inches. In the old plan it was as little as 40 feet or less.
  • Distance from the South tower overhang to the water is 34 feet, eight inches.  The designers believe the overhang is high enough that it will not significantly block views or light.
  • Minimum width of the riverwalk at the south part of the project is 31 feet, eight inches.  Previous drawings look like it used to be around 20 feet.
  • South tower tapers inward six feet at the base, and 16 feet at the top.
  • The developer is working with the Chicago History Museum and the Friends of the Chicago River to come up with ways of tying the architecture of the project into the site’s history.  Though it should be noted that the site doesn’t have much actual history.
  • Restaurant space and public restrooms will be built on the east side of the riverwalk near the water taxi stand.
  • Western portion of the riverwalk will actually go under the West tower.  What happens after that is anybody’s guess.  360 Mart Plaza does not currently have a riverwalk to connect to.
  • Planters and landscaping has been increased in front of the West tower.
  • Buildings take up 22% of the site.
  • Public space takes up 70% of the site.
  • Park space takes up 40% of the site.
  • All car traffic will access the site via North Orleans Street, not from the tremendously congested West Kinzie Street.  There will be access from West Kinzie Street, but only for delivery vehicles.
  • The number of parking spaces has been reduced from 1,800 to 1,285.
  • Wolf Point parking ratios will be lower than other buildings recently constructed in downtown Chicago.
  • Developer will pay for a new traffic signal at West Kinzie Street and North Kingsbury Street with pedestrian countdown signals.
  • Developer will pay for a protected left to be added to the signal at North Orleans Street and West Hubbard Street.
  • Developer will pay for a right-turn arrow to be added to the signal at North Wells Street and the Merchandise Mart.
  • Developer will pay for protected turn signals to be added at North Orleans Street and the Merchandise Mart.

The good news about this project is that, like River Point, the other Hines project about to happen across the river at 444 West Lake Street, this one is fully funded, and construction can begin as soon as the city gives its blessing.

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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