A Ditch Called Wanda: Early Signs that Chicago’s Next Supertall Tower Isn’t Just a Paper Tiger

Wanda Tower under construction

When a massive Chinese conglomerate that most Americans have never heard of announced it was going to splash out almost a billion dollars to put up an 1,150-foot-tall tower in Lakeshore East, you could hear the critics scoffing from Berwyn to Beijing.  We’ve seen lots of proposals on paper over the years for huge projects all around downtown Chicago, and very few of them have ever made it past the press release and a few sketches on paper.  Well, scoff no more, because this paper tiger has teeth.

Drawing of the Wanda Tower at Lakeshore East

Drawing of the Wanda Tower at Lakeshore East, courtesy of the Wanda Group

McHugh Construction has begun very early, very preliminary, embryonic work on the Wanda Tower.  It’s recently become active in the space that was formerly the staging area for the first phase of the two-building GEMS Academy.  The work appears to be a utility survey, which makes sense since you can’t build up until you get down, and get funky, with what’s underground.  And Lakeshore East has some of the funkiest loam in Chicagoland.

Pilings from old piers, railroad ties, abandoned freight tunnels, golf balls— There are all sorts of things that could be down there.  McHugh even had to hire a radiation specialist, ECS Midwest out of Buffalo Grove, to keep an eye out for invisible nastiness.

That’s because the northern part of the The Loop and the southern part of the Gold Coast and Streeterville are dappled with soil contaminated with radioactive thorium because in centuries past, a lantern company in Streeterville used thorium to make its wicks brighter.  It also thought it was OK to dump the radioactive waste directly into the dirt in downtown Chicago.  A century later, it is now standard operating procedure for almost any construction project in the area to test for radiation, and if it’s found, bag up the offending soil and truck it away.

But the big question is how Wanda Tower under constructiondo we know this is the Wanda Tower, and not just preparations for the second GEMS Academy building, set to begin construction any day now at 355 East Wacker Drive?

Well, it’s because of Loop Spy Scott, who sent in photos, not only of the work being done, but of the signs posted around the site.  Signs that helpfully, and very clearly, identify this as work on “Building C.”  Building C is the urban planning codeword for the Wanda Tower.  And if you’re looking for building permits, you won’t find any.  That’s because this work has been classified as street work, so the permits are over at the Department of Transportation, where no skyscraper enthusiast would think to dig for them.

And now you know… the rest of the story.

Location: 301 North Field Boulevard, The Loop


This article is the result of photos sent in by someone just like you. If you see something interesting in your neighborhood, e-mail your phone pics to chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.  Check out our Tip Line for ways to tip us off by text message and anonymous drop box.

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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