For the first time in a long time, there is no residential tower under construction at Lakeshore East. The decade-old community on the edge of downtown Chicago was formerly an old urban golf course, and before that, warehouses and a rail yard.
Today, thousands of people live and work in the complex, which rings a six-acre park built by the project’s developer, Magellan, and later donated to the Chicago Parks District. But what really put the area on the map was a woman named Jeanne, and her building called Aqua.
The Aqua tower (225 North Columbus Drive) has been on the covers of publications from Denver to Dusseldorf. It has been widely praised by many for its innovative, wavy appearance; and ridiculed by a few as little more than a glass box with fins—an architectural parlor trick.
Regardless of what you think of Aqua, the question at hand is, “Can Jeanne Gang do it again?” Expectations are through the roof after Crain’s Chicago Business reported that Magellan has tapped Gang to design another Lakeshore East skyscraper.
Magellan co-CEO Joel Carlins told Crain’s that the new building will be a combination of hotel and residential space. Aqua has the same layout, but was originally intended to be an office building. That led to some unfortunate compromises being made later, including an awkward elevator arrangement. And while Aqua residents are courted on the promise that they will have access to the same amenities as the hotel guests (considered a “luxury” perk in most buildings), they actually end up as second-class citizens in their own home. (Want to watch TV on a big screen in the media room? In most buildings, you just pop in. In Aqua, residents have to pay the Radisson Blu $100 each time they want to get the room unlocked.)
It comes as no surprise that Carlins tells Crain’s that he’s thinking of two possible locations for the new tower. One is obviously next door to Aqua at 205 North Columbus Drive, the so-called “Site O.” The gaping hole is currently zoned for an 80+ story tower, and is across the street from the Fairmont Hotel (200 North Columbus Drive). The Fairmont has been itching to expand for years. It was part of the original hotel plan for Aqua. Later it bought the shuttered fitness center immediately to its east (301 North Stetson Drive), leading to speculation that it might go in that direction. Fairmont has since sold that property. A pedway or skyway connection from the existing Fairmont to a new Gang tower at 205 would solve many of its problems.
The other potential location, as we see it, is on East Wacker Drive. “Site C” is adjacent to phase 2 of the GEMS Academy school project. Phase one is already under construction. Next to it is “Site D”, which abuts The Regata, and is behind The Shoreham.
At one time there was a grand plan for Site C, which envisioned a tall tower straddling Field Boulevard. That may be a little grandiose for today’s financing environment. But site D is ready to go, and it’s possible that combining it with Site C could give the project the scale it needs to be successful.
But what about all that empty land along the lakeshore?
Sites I, J, K, and L are expected to be purely residential. A hotel makes more sense at Sites C/D because its closer to Michigan Avenue and the rest of Chicago’s tourist attractions. Over at I/J/K/L, there is proximity to Navy Pier, and not much else. Plus, selling residential condos overlooking the lake is far more profitable than selling hotel rooms to a hotel chain. There’s a reason in the existing Aqua building that the residences are on the top, and the hotel is on the bottom—because people will pay a premium for a home with a view. (As an interesting aside, the opposite is true in Asian markets where similar mixed-use buildings put the hotel on top and the residences at the bottom, because foreign tourists will pay more for the view and the locals don’t place the same value on it.)
Regardless of where it’s built, millions of eyes will be on Jeanne Gang to see what she comes up with. Since Aqua, the instant starchitect has concentrated mostly on smaller projects like wetlands and schools. Recently she was named for a new building in New York, breaking her low-rise streak. And now we’ll get to see what’s been on her mind all these years. Hopefully she’ll answer the question, “Can Jeanne Gang out-Aqua Aqua?”