Mixed Messages at the New GEMS School in Lakeshore East

What’s going on at the GEMS World Academy in Lakeshore East?

It was just last week that the school held a dedication for its “Upper School.”  The Upper School, to be located at 355 East Wacker Drive, is the second of two buildings in the complex.  It is designed to serve students in fifth through 12th grades.

Rendering of GEMS Academy upper school (via BusinessWire)

Rendering of GEMS Academy Upper School (via BusinessWire)

You’ll remember the bKL-designed GEMS “Lower School” building opened amid much hoopla in 2014.  It was considered a beautiful, symbolic structure that helped complete an important portion of the Lakeshore East Park border.

Its companion building, the Upper School, was celebrated a few days ago with a ceremony involving the students writing their dreams for the future on paper, and those pieces of paper being placed in a plexiglass box, and that box being buried in the foundation of the new building.  Or, at least where the foundation will one day go.

The sentiment was that the new building is being built, literally, on the hopes and dreams of the GEMS students.  While that may have looked great on paper in a board room, the visual spectacle of children’s hopes and dreams being buried in the ground and entombed in cement was… in the parlance of our times… rather dystopian.

But… lesson learned, and we move on.

The dream-burying ceremony was held in the little vacant space between The Coast and the Vista Tower where the school will one day rise.  Right now, it’s just dirt, as crews work on Jeanne Gang’s complex 93-story vision next door.  But what if the Upper School doesn’t end up a school at all?  What if it ends up being an office building, instead?

That’s the question lawyers for the GEMS project asked the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development less than a month ago.

Wait… What?

In a letter to the city, the developers asked about what the parking requirements would be if the Upper School building was kitted out with offices instead of classrooms.  An office building needs more parking than a school, so would it be OK to use a mechanical parking lift to store cars in the building?

GEMS parking letterThe city said, sure. Go nuts.

…in response to your recent request regarding the use of automotive lifts to satisfy a parking requirement if the GEMS School Phase II building at 355 E. Wacker Dr. were to be converted into an office building…

…automotive lifts may be used to provide required accessory parking for the office use so long as the lifts are operated by a valet or attendant employed by the equipment’s owner and are otherwise in compliance with the requirements of Section 17-10-1010-C of the Chicago Zoning Ordinance.

So, good news if the still-unbuilt school ends up being an eventually-built office building.

But it seems strange to explore plans for an office conversion, then just days later hold a ceremony pre-dedicating the new school building.  After all, lawyers cost money.  They don’t make these inquiries for free.

On a possibly-related note, you’ll remember that we reported earlier this year that plans for this building were actually scaled back.  The Upper School was presented to the community as a 13-story building, but over the summer it was pruned back to just eight stories.

So that leaves us with two questions:

  • Is the building at 355 East Wacker going to be an office building or a school?
  • And if it ends up being an office building, can the kids get their hopes and dreams back from under that concrete?



Location: 355 East Wacker Drive, The Loop

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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