Grand Plans for “Millennium Park Lite” Come With West Loop Office Tower

Drawing of 150 North Riverside

For the first time, the developers, architects, and lawyers behind the plan to turn a piece of industrial land on the Chicago River into a public park and unusually shaped office building have talked publicly about their plan.

Developer John O’Donnell and U.S. Equities want to build a 53-story, 720-foot-tall skyscraper in the space between Randolph Place (165 North Canal Street) and the Chicago River. Currently, it is a collection of railroad tracks owned by Amtrak, and used by both Amtrak and Metra trains.

Drawing of 150 North RiversideMr. O’Donnell has had his eye on this property for a long time. He spent the last ten years trying to put something together for this parcel; even before he struck out on his own, when he worked for developer John Buck. Things appear to finally be falling into place to make that wish happen.

The land in question has been in its current state for at least half a century. Looking at maps as far back as 1893 and 1898, it appears this piece of land has always been mostly railroad tracks, occasionally with a three- or four-story building or three jammed in along the water.

Not that many years ago, there was a plan to build two very large towers here, along with the now traditional eight-story Chicago parking podium. The people behind that proposal couldn’t make it happen, and the city’s approval was recently revoked.

The current plan chucks out the eight-story, 850-car parking garage in favor of a one-story garage for a measly 81 cars that also serves as a porte-cochère for the skyscraper, keeping the loading and unloading traffic off of Randolph Street. There is also parking planned for 25 bicycles.

That was one of the sticking points that held this new project up for so long. For more than 18 months, the developers have been meeting with 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly about this project. They’ve been back-and-forth with at least three proposals that we’ve seen. Through it all, the alderman has insisted that this be a “transit-oriented” development. And while a lot of buildings these days like to use that buzzword, in this case it’s true.

Drawing of 150 North RiversideThe most obvious transit link is 150 North Riverside’s proximity to the Ogilvie Transportation Center (500 West Madison Street) just two blocks away, where Metra trains serve the northern and northwestern suburbs.

Go two more blocks, and you find Union Station, and its trains which take commuters to places near and far. Three blocks east is the CTA’s Clark and Lake Blue Line station. Continue another block and you come across the other end of the same station with its Brown, Green, Orange, Purple and Pink line trains. In between are a number of bus routes, and even a water taxi stop. “The demand of tenants nowadays is to be near public transportation,” says O’Donnell.

But in spite of changing population trends over the last 15 years, building a transit friendly building is still not second nature to developers. When Mr. O’Donnell first approached alderman Reilly about his project, it still followed the same old formula from last century: big tower=big parking garage. Reilly rejected the project, in part because of its design, but mostly because the developer shaking the proverbial vagrant’s cup.

Perhaps inspired by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s controversial and generous handout to developer Hines to erect River Point next door, O’Donnell not only wanted a strip of city-owned land for free, he wanted another $20 million in TIF money. That was a non-starter. In the end, the tower will now be 100% paid for with private money. “That was not my idea,” O’Donnell noted in a moment of wry humor.

He did get the land, though — a chunk of oil-soaked gravel right down the middle of the property covered with a bunch of passenger rail tracks, thanks to an ancient easement the city granted to what is now Amtrak.

Drawing of 150 North RiversideIn exchange, the city (that means you) gets a public park. 75% of the development bordered by Lake Street, Randolph Street, an alley, and the Chicago River will be parkland. “Millennium Park Lite,” is what O’Donnell called it. “We’re trying to mimic that to a degree, but without the subsidy,” referring to the $270 million that taxpayers spent on the Michigan Avenue space.

It’s envisioned to include curving paths, a slight hill (actually the roof of the one-story parking garage), a sort of amphitheater area, and a bar at park level connected to an underground restaurant with windows onto the river at water level. Also planned for the underground space is a food court, public restrooms, and a conference center. The riverwalk portion will be at least the city-mandated 30 feet wide, and in many places 45 feet or more.

Reilly has been emphatic in noting that this will be a public park, not a publicly accessible private park. When Hines finally agreed to build its park at River Point, the Texas developer tried to start negotiations over how many days a year it would be available to the public. Reilly said words to the effect of “Homey don’t play that” and sent Hines packing until it realized that Chicago isn’t Houston and you can’t just build whatever you want without regard to the neighbors. The Hines park will now be open all year round.

Neighbors, however, are worried that the the 150 North Riverside park will be significantly less than promised. They don’t want a repeat of what’s going on one block to the south at the Boeing building. When the Seattle aircraft maker moved here, what used to be a nice, welcoming public plaza became a fortress with security guards harassing the locals for walking through what’s supposed to be a public riverwalk, threatening tourists for the imaginary crime of camera possession, and keeping the place behind locked gates more often than it is open. That is also the case up the street, where the residential development north of Kinzie Street keeps the public riverwalk locked up. If you want to legally access it, you must go to a security office and ask a guard to unlock it for you.

Drawing of 150 North RiversideThe developer is trying to assuage the locals fears by promising to deed the 150 park to the city. But then he repeatedly states the park will be open “dawn to dusk.” City parks are open until 11pm. And it’s not like city parks have a stellar track record of openness, access, and not trying chasing tourists away because they’re holding cameras. When it’s not snowing, there are parts of Millennium Park repeatedly locked off for private events, and some parts that are closed to the public for big corporations for months at a time.

But developer O’Donnell is making the right noises about openness. He’s talking about having public events in the park, like movie screenings, concerts, farmers markets, and perhaps even a Christmas market (Christkindlmarkt Lite?). Maybe even a dog park. Having the park busy year-round (“Activating” the park in urban planning speak) keeps it connected to the community, builds good will, and also cuts down on security and maintenance costs.

The people most impacted by this new building are the people in the old building next door, the 91-year-old Randolph Place by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Its residents have been enjoying an obstruction-free view of the Chicago River and the downtown skyline for as long as there have been residents in there. A number of them will have their views at least partially blocked.

150 North Riverside will be 122 feet from Randolph Place. A distance O’Donnell likes to point out is the same as the distance between One Magnificent Mile and the Drake Hotel. It’s a measurement lost on the masses. O’Donnell seems to forget that not everyone dines at Spiaggia or takes tea at the Palm Court.

The architects pushed the building to the northeast corner of the block in order to reduce the visual impact on those residents, both in terms of direct obstruction, but also to minimize the amount of shadow the building will cast on the residential block, and the amount of sunlight reflected into their windows. The nearby Heller International building has been something of an Archimedes Death Ray for its West Loop neighbors.

Architect Jim Goettsch says the reflections will be minimized two ways. First, by using low-reflectivity glass. The project is expected to use glass with just 15-25% reflectivity. In addition, there will be a system of undulating fins radiating from the building’s facade. It mimics the ripples of disturbed water and scatters light, instead of focusing it.

Randolph Place Lofts, in partial shadow from the Boeing Headquarters, with the space for 150 North Riverside in front

But that won’t help with the opposite problem — shadows. The developer notes correctly that much of Randolph Place is in shadow anyway because of the Boeing Headquarters. The position of the 150 North Riverside tower means its shadow is cast mostly on the CTA L tracks, and the River Point office building. The developer has an animation which shows where the shadows land throughout the day. Though the animation we saw was for the September equinox. It would be instructive for the developer to release animations at all times of the year.

(You can do your own shadow study with Google Earth or Google Sketchup. It’s an interesting way to waste an afternoon.)

So, what’s the fate of this building? Even though there are still public meetings ahead, we don’t expect to see much change. The developer isn’t asking for any zoning changes, so the alderman’s office only has so much leverage. Trading the center strip of land (estimated value $3 million) for the public park is probably as good as it’s going to get. Plus, the developer is quick to point out that he’s decking over a noisy, smelly train thoroughfare. The diesel fumes will be vented away from the existing residential building as well as the park, and enclosing the Amtrak tracks is expected to reduce that noise by 80%.

In the end, the development of this parcel is inevitable. In some opinions, it is an open wound on the river and should have been filled in long ago. Others think the city doesn’t need another office building because of an amateur’s mis-reading of vacancy rates. By that logic, nothing would ever have been built. Real estate is a little like hockey — success doesn’t come from knowing where the puck is, but knowing where the puck is going to be.

  • Height: 720 feet
  • Stories: 53
  • Site area: 107,568 square feet
  • Building size: 1,371,000 square feet
  • Office space: 1,200,000 square feet
  • Developer: John O’Donnell
  • Developer: U.S. Equities
  • Architect: Jim Goettsch
  • Structural Engineer: Magnusson Klemencic (Seattle)
  • General Contractor: Clark Construction (Maryland) – Selected because of its experience working with Amtrak
  • Building reaches its full width 100 feet over the park
  • Parking garage: 1 story, under the park against the west alley
  • Parking spaces: 81
  • Bicycle parking: 25 spaces
  • Loading dock: 3 berths, accessed from West Lake Street
  • Estimated annual tax revenue to city: $13-15 million
  • Traffic increast at nearby intersections: 1-4%
  • Caisson depth: 100 feet – Micropiles used instead of caissons for the park section to minimize construction noise and vibration.
  • Green roof: 100%
  • Going for at least LEED Silver, possibly Gold

Author: Editor

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

Share This Post On