Odd Chicago Zoning Rule Says No to Skyscraper, Yes to Typewriter Repair Shop

The history of Chicago is written in its zoning rules.  Leafing through the pages you get a sense of how successive generations used the letter of the law to shape the ways in which the city would grow and change.

Since both history and urban planning are messy affairs, it’s not surprising to find grains of sand in these oysters of wisdom.  One of them surfaced recently at 401 North State Street, where the parking garage is located that matches Mies van der Rohe’s 330 North Wabash tower.

We don't take a lot of pictures of parking garages, so this will have to do. (via Apple Maps)
We don’t take a lot of pictures of parking garages, so this will have to do. (via Apple Maps)

When the skyscraper went up in the late 60’s and early 70’s, it was custom designed for IBM.  For the youngsters out there, the “BM” in IBM means “business machines,” and IBM’s primary business machines at the time were mainframe computers and typewriters.  IBM moved out in 2006, making way for doctors, who then made way for some of the most somnolent hotel pillows in Chicago.

Recently, a lawyer inquired with the city, asking what kinds of buildings are permitted to be built at 401 North State.  That’s usually an indication that the owner wants to redevelop the property and is trying to find the most frictionless means of doing so.  If “office building” is a permitted use, then the owner can tear down the parking garage and put up the office building with relatively little fuss.  But that’s not the case at 401.

Because of its current use as a parking garage, and its history as part of IBM, the city’s position is that currently the only permitted use for the property is either as a parking garage… or as a typewriter repair shop.  To quote the Department of Planning and Development’s letter to the lawyer:

“off-street multi-level parking facilities… and activities related to the cleaning, servicing, testing, repair or storage of typewriters, data processing equipment, similar office equipment and parts and supples.”

Historic awesomeness.

What the owner plans to do with the property is anyone’s guess.  Maybe a hotel.  Maybe an office building.  Maybe the world’s largest Dunkin’ Donuts to compete with the world’s largest Starbucks up the street.  The lawyer was vague, and the city pushed back saying that without a specific development proposal it couldn’t give detailed answers about what’s allowed.

But considering that the property is currently zoned DX-12, that means the owners could tear down the parking garage and use half the land to put up a 24-story typewriter repair facility, that would certainly be the world’s largest.  But even that is, “subject to review by the Dept. of Streets and Sanitation.”

Location: 401 North State Street, Near North

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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