The Story of O: Three Buildings in One

Chicago is a city of Big O’s. Entertainment had its Oprah. Politics has its Obama. And architecture has Lakeshore East Building O. Since we broke the news of Building O (201 North Columbus Drive) several weeks ago, there has been a lot of interest in what it will become. The time has arrived to spill some beans.

Rendering of Building OThe 642-foot-tall building is broken into four components. At the base are a pair of hotel lobbies, a residential lobby, and 10,000 square feet of retail space. Why two hotel lobbies? Because the building sports two hotels on the lower floors.

The lobbies are arranged sequentially along the south side of the driveway that currently serves Aqua’s ballrooms and parking garage. This is the space that would be Upper East Lake Street, if that street hadn’t been co-opted a block earlier to become the Aon Center’s private driveway.

Toward the North Columbus Drive end of the base is retail space. A lot of work has been put into making sure this is an “active” space, and not just another dead Chicago parking podium. Parking will be in the levels below the false grade of Upper Columbus Drive. It will consist of 197 spaces as an extension of the Aqua parking garage. Having it configured as an extension, with no entrances or exits of its own, skirts the possibility of running afoul of agreements the city has for not approving new non-resident parking in the downtown area.

And adding three lobbies, valet stations, taxi stands, and retail to what is essentially a dead-end should certainly perk up the activity level here. This location has been screaming for a traffic light for years. Because of a series of close calls, last year 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly got CDOT to put in signs making the pedestrian crossings more visible to clueless tourists and careless cabbies. Adding two hotels and an apartment tower onto an intersection already used by a huge office building, two other hotels, an apartment block and a condo block could be the traffic density needed for CDOT to finally go all the way.

Rendering of Building OAnd it’s not just Upper Columbus getting activated. Four thousand square feet of the retail space will face the park, and adjoin the Mezcalina restaurant/coffee shop.

The base of Building O will also fulfill a long-awaited Lakeshore East dream: a pedway connection between the main underground grid and the Mariano’s supermarket at the Village Market building. The sad part is that it’s a connection through a parking garage, but we can add two more locations to the big list of coffee shops accessible in the dead of winter through the pedway.

Also on the list of promises fulfilled: Improved elevator access between Upper Columbus Drive and the park at Lakeshore East. If you’ve ever walked down the ziggurat of a staircase at the end of the Aqua cul-de-sac, you know it’s beyond awkward, and tremendously time consuming. Currently, the only other option is to walk all the way to the other side of Aqua and use the elevator next to Fire Station 13, or walk around 300 East Randolph and use the escalators in the Village Market building. The new base of Building O includes an additional public elevator.

Located atop this retail and lobby podium is the pool and other outdoor amenities for the hotels. Building O had two hotels, each with a different brand, and both will share this outdoor space. The outdoor space will also be available to the residents of Building O, just as the Raddison Blu amenities at Aqua are available to the condo owners and apartment renters in that building.

Rendering of Building OThis isn’t the first double-hotel building proposed in Chicago in recent years. You’ll remember not too long ago there was a plan for stacked hotels on Rush Street. In this case, however, the hotels are side-by-side. This arrangement allows for more efficiency than a stacked configuration. Certain services, like freight elevators, will be shared between the two brands. This is possible, in part, because all 684 rooms of the hotel space will have a single owner, even though it will have two brands. Floor count from Upper Columbus to the top of the hotel portion is 23 stories.

The residential elevators shoot straight through the hotel floors of the building, and at the top of the hotel portion is a visible architectural break. This is the common amenities floor for the people who live in the apartments (apartments, not condos) above. Unlike next door at Aqua, Building O residents will have some private space to themselves. Aqua residents share everything with the hotel guests; a necessary compromise considering the building’s early history.

The residential portion of Building O consists of 574 residences and extends another 30 stories skyward, bringing the total floor count to 53, measured from the Upper Columbus entrances, or 58, measured from ground level (the parking garage is five floors).

The tower has been massed to the east side of the space, which gives some people a chance at views unobstructed by 300 East Randolph. You might expect that these residences will be the larger, more expensive units, but they’re not. Studios, one- and two-bedroom units are evenly spaces throughout the tower.

Did I hear you ask about LEED? Yep. LEED Silver is the goal here, and comes with an obligatory Green Roof Alert.

Location: 201 North Columbus Drive, The Loop

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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