Plan Commission Green Lights Wolf Point; Developer Ready to Go
There are still some procedural hurdles and a full city council vote ahead, but those are seen as mere formalities now that the Chicago Plan Commission has given the thumbs up to developing the most prominent of the few remaining riverfront properties in downtown Chicago.
When the billion-dollar project is done, the current surface parking lot south of 350 West Mart Center (formerly known as the Apparel Mart) will be transformed into a monster parking garage, covered by a huge public park, topped with three skyscrapers and ringed with a riverwalk.
Plans allowing the development of the huge residential, office, and hotel complex to be built at the confluence of the Chicago River and its north branch were approved by the city in 1973. And since then, very little has changed with the site.
So when the papers were dusted off once again last year, people in neighboring condominiums were not happy. The project threatens to destroy their million-dollar views, which they are used to renting out to ad agencies, Hollywood movie productions, and event planners.
Unfortunately, a certain number of them went overboard, transforming fear into lies, and eventually into Grade A internet-class crazy.
Listening to the conversations of these “concerned citizens” gathered outside the Chicago City Council chamber before the Plan Commission meeting was like listening to a late-night conspiracy theory radio show. They spoke in hushed tones of a big “government cover up” and shared rumors of cash payoffs and secret documents. The only things missing were tinfoil hats, and references to Area 51 and the Freemasons.
The derp heard outside apparently was only the tip of the iceberg. We’ve heard a number of falsehoods come from opponents of Wolf Point over the last few months, but wrote them off as desperate measures in desperate times.
Apparently things were much worse than we thought.
Bad enough that the mild-mannered 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly took time during the meeting to denounce the outright lies that have been spread by Wolf Point opponents about him, his office, the process, and the project. It was a surprising and unusual turn, even for a chamber that has seen everything from rodeos to fistfights in its history.
In the end, pants-on-fire turned out not to be a winning strategy for the anti-Wolf Point crowd as one “yes” of approval after another came in during the unanimous roll-call vote.
Before the vote, the public was given a chance to speak directly to the commissioners, making statements for and against the project. But it seemed every time a naysayer got up to the microphone, instead of convincing the panel to delay the project, all he did was convince the room that he wasn’t listening to anyone but himself.
Case in point: During the presentation, the developers went out of their way more than once to ensure that the Plan Commission understood that all they were asking for Thursday afternoon was approval of the west tower plan, and that in order to build the south and east towers, they would be back and have to jump through all of the city’s hoops all over again.
Still, the anti-Wolf Point people made fervent petitions to the Plan Commission to only approve the west tower, not the entire project — the exact same thing the developer was asking for.
But that doesn’t mean some interesting points weren’t made.
One man noted that this is the first project in decades that won’t contribute to the city’s affordable housing program. In Chicago, when a developer wants to build something huge and interesting, a certain amount of residences have to be set aside for low-income housing. Or, if the developer doesn’t want low-income people in his buildings, he can pay cash to the city and it will build the low-income housing elsewhere.
The amount of these payouts is hardly trivial, and even a small project can end up paying millions of dollars into the low income housing fund. As an example, the slender 42-story tower at 73 East Lake Street will have 332 residences, putting it in the average/smallish side for downtown residential projects. But its contribution to affordable housing is $1,482,941.
If the same calculation used for 73 East Lake was applied at Wolf Point, it would be on the hook for $4,020,020.78. But as was noted by one complaintant, since Wolf Point’s development plan was approved by the city in 1973, it pre-dates the city’s affordable housing scheme, and so won’t have to cough up a cent.
The last speaker of the afternoon was internet architecture booster Butler Adams, who made a great point that was lost in all the rancor surrounding the development: It’s boring.
The architect for the now-approved west tower is BKL. You can see a model of the west tower through the window of their office on the ground floor of the Aqua building in The Loop. Then you can turn to your left and notice… it’s pretty much The Coast that they built a few dozen feet away with a couple of minor tweaks. Considering this is easily Chicago’s first or second-most prominent downtown location, it is certainly deserving of something better than yet-another blue-glass block.
Mr. Adams was especially critical of the south tower — a 900-foot-tall glass shaft that should be a landmark in the city, but even in the architect’s own drawings, is hardly noteworthy in the city skyline.
That building was designed by the Connecticut firm of Pelli Clarke Pelli, and Fred W. Clarke was there at the meeting. It was a delightful moment of schadenfreude to see him have to sit there and listen to some punk from the internet call him out for recycling the design of a building in South America for use in Chicago, as if no one would notice. (We’re not sure exactly which building Mr. Adams was referring to, but it could be any of the raft of similar-looking PCP towers like the Gran Torre Santiago in Chile, Torre Cajasol in Seville, the Jingui Li Iconic Tower in China, or even the Landmark in Abu Dhabi.)
Mr. Adams made the very salient point that Chicago is a city where architects are supposed to take chances and try new things and invent architectural trends to be copied by other cities; and perhaps the East Coasters from PCP don’t fully appreciate that this flyover city has a design pedigree.
The good news for Mr. Adams, and similarly-minded people is that the PCP designs for the south and east towers are not set in stone. That’s why those drawings are so much less specific than the west tower that was approved Thursday. When it comes time to start work on Wolf Point Phase II and III, then we’ll see better drawings of hopefully better buildings.
We’ve covered the Wolf Point project extensively elsewhere on this blog (see the related stories linked below), but here are some notes that may help bring newcomers up to speed, and may be new even to people who have been following this drama:
- West tower – Phase I – 493 feet tall – Residential, parking
- South tower – Phase II – 950 feet tall – Office, retail, hotel, parking
- East tower – Phase III – 750 feet tall – Office, retail, hotel, residential, parking
- Total residences: 900
- Total hotel rooms: 450
- West and east towers were moved to the edges of the property to improve light infiltration into the public space.
- All three towers get smaller towards their bottoms to give a greater sense of open space.
- Distance from the west tower to the nearest residential building: 225 feet to River Bend
- Total area: 167,000 square feet
- Total building area: 67,000 square feet
- Total park area: 100,000 square feet
- The Wolf Point park will be larger than many city parks.
- Highest point in the park: 20 feet above the river walk.
- Phase I includes a stepped park so people can sit in the grass and look at the river
- The pointiest point of the point may include a fountain or other focal element.
- West tower stands on columns 40 feet over the river walk.
- South and east towers stand on columns 70 feet tall over the park.
- South tower is envisioned with a sloping roof pointing downstream.
- West tower will have clear, non-reflective glass with a slight blue tint.
- West tower balconies will be carved into the building, instead of hanging off the building.
- The city’s riverwalk guidelines require a 30-foot setback. However, encroachment is permitted if for each square foot of encroachment, 2.4 square feet of public space is created.
- Compensation for the west tower’s encroachment is actually at a rate of 5 square feet of public space for each foot of encroachment.
- Phase II includes adding a southbound traffic lane to Orleans, ending at the Mart Plaza access road. This will not affect the bicycle lane or the number of northbound traffic lanes.
- Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development approves of the Wolf Point project.
- Illinois Department of Natural Resources is OK with the Wolf Point project.
- The United Staes Army Corps of Engineers is OK with the Wolf Point project.
- Green roof is at least 3,000 square feet.
- Wolf Point is not asking for any money from the city.
- Wolf Point is not in a TIF district.
- The developers are ready to start construction, as soon as they get final city approval and the right permits in place.
- Construction of the west tower is expected to take 20 months.
- The west tower is expected to create 1,000 construction jobs.
- Some members of the Plan Commission don’t think there’s enough parking, noting that the guidelines were developed taking public transit into account.
- Some members of the Plan Commission don’t agree with the developer that this is a “transit-oriented” project, noting that aside from the CTA Brown line, there is almost no practical, nearby direct connectivity to the rest of the city.
- Some members of the Plan Commission think the project should have more retail elements. As it is now, the only retail envisioned for the project is a restaurant in Phase III, and that only came at the urging of the community.