If this was a high school literature class, you might say that the snow falling outside Second Presbyterian Church tonight was foreshadowing the chilly reception developers would receive inside the church, like some lakeside Emily Bronte novel.
Residents of the South Loop and nearby neighborhoods gathered at a Prairie District Neighborhood Association event outlining the latest version of the McCormick Place expansion plan.
The plan goes before the Chicago Plan Commission in a little over a week (April 23, 2014), so this was one of the last chances for people to make their voices, for and against, heard.
The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (“McPier”) wants to build a 1,200-room Marriott Marquis hotel attached to the old American Book Company Building (320 East Cermak Road). The historic building would be incorporated into the hotel, with the ground floor given over to retail space, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The middle floors would be hotel meeting rooms, and the top floors used for hotel office space. The two buildings would be connected by a multi-story walkway.
In keeping with the continuing ground-floor retail theme, the first floor of the hotel tower would be public retail and restaurants intended to welcome locals into the building instead of keeping the space exclusively for out-of-town guests. It is also hoped that the retail push will keep visitors in the area, instead of heading north to other parts of the city to spend their dining and nightlife dollars.
Also attached to the Marriott tower would be what is commonly called the “DePaul Arena,” though it is officially being called the McCormick Place Event Center because the number of days DePaul would use the space is small, and McPier really really really wants the building so that it can host not only the gargantuan conventions that are largely a thing of the past, but also the more modestly-sized conventions that are now common because of the nation’s more modestly-sized economy.
There were some rumblings from McPier that it wanted to close down Prairie Avenue between the hotel and the events center to make a pedestrian plaza. That idea was nixed by CDOT, which wants the street to stay open for public safety reasons and for neighborhood mobility. But it is open to the possibility of closing the block temporarily during large events, as is done for Major League Baseball games in the city.
While McPier prepares for an influx of people to its hotel and event center, it does not expect to flood the neighborhood with cars. Traffic engineers predict that nearly all of the hotel traffic will arrive via I-55, because people will be driving in from far away for conventions, or arriving by plane into O’Hare airport.
A similar scenario is envisioned for DePaul basketball games at the event center, with most of its visitors arriving by car from the northwest, or via the new Green Line station at Cermak Road.
The arena/exposition space would be mostly below grade, but still rise four stories into the neighborhood, and be less than 100 feet tall. Still, because of its shape, its designers envision it as a local landmark. McPier promises to line the exterior facing walls with retail space so that it looks and acts like a building that’s part of the neighborhood, and not like a weird spaceship set down amid the warehouses and vacant lots of the South Loop.
But in order to sink that building into the block in question, the landmarked Rees House (1120 South Prairie Avenue) will have to go.
Fortunately, this time “go” means “move to a new location” instead of “feel the cold sear of a wrecking ball at velocity.” The Rees House will be moved up the street to a new location at 2017 South Prairie Avenuye, putting it right next door to fwlloe architectural survivor the William Ried House.
Also part of this block shuffle is the construction of a new data center. We haven’t covered it much in the past because hotels for computers aren’t sexy the way a good skyscraper is. But now that it’s a firm part of the plan, it’s worth mentioning.
The data hotel would be at 2100 South Calumet Avenue. 12 stories above grade, and 70 private parking spaces below. Server farms are becoming big business in Chicago, and the city has one of the largest data hotels in the world. I’ve spoken with internet nerds as far away as Austria who know Chicago for its data processing and storage capacity, and not for Al Capone.
Some neighbors are in favor of the CenterPoint data center because it’s the sort of business that contributes a lot of tax dollars to the city without using much in the way of services likes police, fire, roads, etc… Others feel that data hotels detract from the neighborhood because they present blank walls to the street, sterilizing their immediate area instead of contributing to a walkable city. The City of Chicago requires ground floor retail in parking garages for this very reason, but data hotels are considered akin to office buildings and are not subject to the same rules.
David Narefsky, a lawyer for Digital Realty Trust told the neighbors that there is absolutely no truth to a recent rumor that the ground floor of the data hotel in the former Donnelly building nearby would be turned into retail space.
The developers of the new data hotel outlined their plans for noise mitigation, including restricting generator testing to mid-day periods. There have been complaints from neighbors about the Donnelly data hotel. Its rooftop generators have been known to fire up very early in the morning on weekends. When asked about this, Mr. Narefsky turned it back on the neighbors, stating that his client needs to know which generator it is that’s testing. It is likely impossible for someone three blocks away to know which rooftop generator in a group of generators is the offending one, and which company operates it.
The CenterPoint data hotel will also take steps to make it more neighborhood-friendly, by setting the building back from the street by 30 feet, including a pedestrian arcade on one side, and installing a green wall of Boston Ivy on the west side. it will also have a partial glass facade that mimics windows, and a cornice line at the sixth floor, nodding to the height of other nearby buildings.
Alderman Dowell promised that the data center would not get city approval unless CenterPoint came up with five million dollars to build a pocket park some where nearby.
McPier has already started phase one, which is to put out a call to companies that want to be involved in the project. Responses are due this month.
It’s hoping to break ground in early 2015; open the events center on January 1, 2017; and open the hotel in April of 2017.