McPier Contracts McCormick Expansion, Motor Row Boutique Hotel to Wait


Revised McCormick Place expansion plan

Revised McCormick Place expansion plan

The organization that runs, and wants to expand, Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center has released its Plan B, after the original expansion plan unveiled last year ran into legal challenges.

At a presentation earlier this week, executives and architects outlined how they’re going to get out of the current courtroom impasse, and get the expansion rolling.

The new proposal shuffles some buildings around, and postpones the proposed boutique hotel, perhaps the least-controversial portion of the plan.

McPier had wanted to build a giant Marriott Marquis, designed by Gensler, a smaller boutique hotel and a combination DePaul sports arena and events center, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli,  on both sides of Cermak Road between Prairie and Michigan Avenues. But it’s just not able to get the pieces of land it needs to make that happen.

Revised McCormick Place expansion plan

Revised McCormick Place expansion plan

So now the proposed 1,200-room “headquarters hotel” has been moved from the south side of Cermak Road between Michigan and Indiana to the northeast corner of Cerak and Prairie, immediately west of the landmarked American Book Company building (320 East Cermak Road). Behind the A.B.C. building will go a new data center, something this portion of the South Loop is becoming globally known for in IT circles.

The event center/arena stays on its planned block, bounded by Prairie Avenue, Indiana Avenue, Cermak Road, and 21st Street. But the boutique hotel that was planned for the southern edge of the property has been decoupled from the arena. Instead, it is now planned to go in the space that was formerly going to be for the Marriott. That is, if it gets built.

The boutique hotel is now considered a “future” project that could help jump start the planned Motor Row entertainment district just to its south along Michigan Avenue. The idea is that the arena will draw people to the boutique hotel, which will draw restaurants and shops to Motor Row, and those will draw non-convention people to the area, and give conventioneers a reason to leave the McCormick bubble.

This is a shift from the previous proposal, where the boutique hotel was presented as essential to helping develop a vibrant, walkable neighborhood along Cermak Road in order to make the neighborhood better and safer for both residents and tourists.

Drawing of the proposed McCormick Place Event Center, courtesy of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

Drawing of the proposed McCormick Place Event Center, courtesy of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

A great deal of that burden has been shifted onto the event center, which now takes up its entire city block. It has been designed with retail space on all four sides to avoid the mistakes of other urban arenas, whose blank walls often sterilize a neighborhood. The outward-facing retail is intended to provide an active presence, day and night, whether there is an event being held in the arena or not.

Inside the arena, 60% percent of the seating will actually be at street level, encouraging people inside to come outside and utilize the anticipated neighborhood shops and restaurants. The majority of the remainder of the facility will be below grade, including loading docks. Trucks will access the event center from a staging area in the McCormick Place garages, and not from 21st Street or Prairie Avenue.

Placing so much of the event center infrastructure below street level allows it to blend in with the neighborhood better. Instead of being a giant hulking mass like the United Center, its eaves end up being just a little bit taller than the trees on Cermak. The arch of the roof is expected to be around 90 feet tall, or about the height of many of the nearby loft buildings.

Although the arena is supposed to be live on four sides, post-event activities are planned to be staged on Cermark Road only, directing the noise and crowds away from the bulk of the residential neighbors. There will also be a skybridge linking the events center with the Marriott Marquis, across Prairie Avenue, further keeping people from wandering through the neighborhood, as often happens during Bears games.

American Book Company Building courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

American Book Company Building courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

The reason so many beer-soaked Bears fans with brimming bladders end up stumbling through the Prairie Avenue District is because they left their cars there looking for cheap parking. The planned McCormick Place expansion project includes between six and seven-thousand parking spaces. The venue will hold about 10,000 people for basketball games, or about 8,000 people in a concert configuration. 60 events are planned for its first year of operation.

Moreover, there are still plans to improve transit access so that so many cars won’t converge on the area at once. And if there are certain types of events that involve more noise or light than usual, McPier plans to actually acoustically black out the arena from the inside to keep the noise in.

So, when does all this happen? Ideally, McPier would like to see dirt moving early next year, with completion in late 2016 or early 2017. If all the paperwork moves along without too many hitches, city council approval could come in April.

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell is on board, and is eagerly awaiting the creation of an estimated 10,000 temporary construction jobs, and 3,000 permanent jobs.

Although the headquarters hotel and the arena are being presented as a single project, city tax dollars will only be used for the hotel, not the event center/arena.

Rees House.  Photograph courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

Rees House. Photograph courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

The view for local historians and architecture buffs is mixed. The new proposal puts in ink that the beloved American Book Company building will be safe from the wrecking ball. There have long been concerns that changes in the expansion plan could be its demolition.

But things still look dire for the Rees House (2110 South Prairie Avenue). The 1888 home by Cobb & Frost would definitely impinge on the space needed to sell nachos and foam number one fingers in the DePaul arena, and thus it must be removed. However, like the American Book Company Building, the Rees House is landmarked.  In fact, it was added to the city’s landmark list not that long ago — March of 2012.

Chicago Architecture Blog correspondent Mary Chmielewicz contributed to this report.

This article has been updated to reflect that the Harriet Rees House is, indeed, landmarked.  We were working from an outdated landmark list when the article was originally published.

Editor’s Note: I apologize that some of the renderings of the new proposal are not as perfect as we’d like them to be, but it’s getting harder and harder these days to get these pictures through official channels, so pics of pics will sometimes have to do.  At least they are the correct and current pictures of the McCormick Place expansion plan, as some publications are running the old renderings from last year, mistaking them for the current plan. Accuracy trumps beauty in this case.

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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