McPier’s Big Plans For the South Loop Have Neighbors All Over The Map

McCormick Place expansion drawing courtesy of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

McCormick Place expansion drawing courtesy of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

 

The latest plans for a new hotel and arena for the McCormick Place Convention Center are so far-reaching and so entangled with other nearby developments that many otherwise sensible neighborhood residents aren’t sure what to think.

At the heart of the proposal from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (“McPier”) is a so-called “Headquarters Hotel” it wants to put up across South Indiana Avenue, west of the current West Building, and south of the 35-story Lex residential tower.

The proposed hotel is massive for the area. 1,200 rooms. It’s still far too early to say how tall it will be, but to hold that many keys and infrastructure, it could be 50 stories or more.

Why so big? The reason is in that term “headquarters hotel.” These days large conventions need a hotel that the people holding the event can take over for their own. It needs to have large ballrooms and many smaller meeting rooms for the various conventions-within-the-convention that happen these days. If you’ve ever been to an event like E2 or the WWDC, you know what we’re talking about.

According to McPier Trustee Jim Reilly, it’s one of the reasons that Chicago loses conventions to Las Vegas where hotels are routinely 3,000 rooms and higher. The organization hired a consultant to do a study of McCormick Place’s hotel needs in the future, and it found that by the year 2029, the convention center will need 8,000 hotel rooms.

American Book Company Building courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

American Book Company Building courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

Even McPier knows that’s not realistic, which is why it’s going with its current plan — a large 1,200-room hotel, and a smaller 500-room hotel.

That smaller hotel is where things start to get tricky. At a recent public event hosted by the Prairie Avenue Neighborhood Association nobody objected to the mega-hotel. In fact, most who chose to speak about it welcomed the structure, its tax revenue, and the thousands of visitors who will hopefully find the nearby shops and restaurants.

But the smaller hotel is more of a sticky wicket.

Billed by McPier as a “mid-market boutique hotel,” it is slated to go north of the McCormick Place West Building, and east of The Lex.

McCormick Place expansion diagram courtesy of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

McCormick Place expansion diagram courtesy of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

The thumbnail sketches from McPier show it fitting on the block bounded by Cermak, Prairie, Indiana, and 21st Street along with a proposed arena. PDNA, and many local residents, don’t think it will fit, and they’re worried that the two buildings will gobble up the block immediately to the east, which is the home of the landmark American Book Company building (320 East Cermak Road).

The ABC Building was erected in 1911 and was designed by Max Dunning. It is an official city landmark, and its offset tower is something of a neighborhood landmark as well.

Even if the designs that come out of McPier’s architect manage to squeeze both the hotel and the 12,000-seat arena onto a single city block, the Harriet Reese House (2110 South Prairie Avenue) is on the chopping block.

It was built in 1888, and designed by Cobb & Frost. We’ve profiled it briefly in the past because it is the last remaining house on this block, and a remarkable piece of architecture.

The house and the hotel could easily share the block. But the house will have to go if an arena is also part of the mix.

Rees House.  Photograph courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

Rees House. Photograph courtesy of Artefaqs stock photography.

And that’s one of the things about language — it shows intent.

Opponents of this project often refer to the 12,000-seat building as an “arena” or the “DePaul Arena.” The McCormick Place folks don’t. They call it an “event center.” Why? Because they plan to use it for many more events than the 30 basketball games that DePaul University is expected to hold there.

McCormick Place is having trouble transitioning from the era of 1960’s and 1970’s conventions into the modern convention era. As we’ve noted above, the number of hotels available to it is too small (part of the reason the McCormick Busway was built to link the convention center with the Illinois Center.)

At the same time, many of its exhibition halls are too big.

Yes, there are massive conventions of the sort that require the “headquarters hotel.” But the convention industry isn’t what it used to be, and there are many more medium-sized conventions out there looking for homes that pass Chicago over because it doesn’t have medium-sized facilities.

Andrew Mooney, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development says, “We have to constantly improve and upgrade the product in order to attract conventions here.”

Some of the conventions will still use a large McCormick-class hall. But partitioning the hall, setting up seating and lighting, and other expenses end up pricing Chicago out of the range of most of the conventions, even with the recent round of union concessions.

So McPier’s interest in the arena isn’t that it loves college basketball. It’s that it loves the money that comes in from mid-range conventions that would fit perfectly in a small arena with an attached mid-sized hotel.

The official position of the P.D.N.A. is that the hotel and arena would better serve the community if it was located on the vacant land south of 23rd Street, and west of State Street. Or perhaps at the dead Michael Reese Hospital site, or even on the long-vacant land south of Roosevelt Road between Clark Street and the Chicago River. Even DePaul University is OK with the 23rd Street idea. It is paying for half of the cost of the event center, plus paying rent on its use.

But all of those are non-starters as far as McPier is concerned for the simple reason that it needs the arena and both hotels to be connected to the rest of the McCormick Place complex by skywalks. Visitors won’t walk from an event center even a couple of blocks away to get to the rest of the convention complex. Especially in winter.

McCormick Place headquarters hotel drawing courtesy of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

McCormick Place headquarters hotel drawing courtesy of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

Anyone who’s ever worked in the hospitality industry will tell you that is true. It’s why hotels pay top dollar to be located as close to Michigan Avenue as they can. People are lazy, or tired, or busy, or any number of other things that keep them from wandering around. And when they’re in an unfamiliar city on business, the majority of them won’t explore. It’s the reason room service exists even in hotels that are in the middle of everything.

Regardless, a number of local residents are worried about the event center, even if it’s only used for sporting events a few dozen times a year.

If you’ve ever been in the Prairie Avenue area on a Bears game Sunday, you’ve seen plenty of drunken suburbanites shouting through the neighborhood, dropping their trash everywhere, and peeing on the rhododendrons because even though they believe only poor people take mass transit, they won’t shell out for parking at Soldier Field.

Some people see the whole project in a more conspiratorial light. They think “event center” is a euphemism for “casino.”

Mr. Reilly thinks that’s absurd. He says McPier is against including a casino in the project because its clients — the conventions — don’t want it. They want the conventioneers to stay in the convention center and on the convention floor as much as possible.

Other things the locals worry about:

  • -You can’t build an arena without it being surrounded by ugly blank walls that do nothing to enhance the streetscape.
  • -Since McPier is tax-exempt, it will take otherwise revenue-generating land off the tax roles.
  • -Noise from arena events

The city and its agencies counter with:

  • $6.5 million has already been set aside to improve streetscapes in the area.
  • Mr. Mooney says the new development makes McCormick Place more a part of the neighborhood and less of a separate entity.
  • McPier believes the McCormick development will spur the growth of the Motor Row district. Until now, nobody wanted to be first to develop the area. McPier is ready to make that commitment.

The community-wide sentiment seems to be very mixed. In the words of one local, “That area is dead, it’s dangerous, and it’s dilapidated. I can’t believe this community doesn’t want to see it come to life.” Others say they don’t understand why so many people’s “attachment to vacant warehouses.”

Even Mr. Mooney, with the city’s HUD office, is worried about the landmark buildings. He hopes they will be incorporated into the development, and thinks that the American Book Company building would make a fine hotel.

It’s sill very early days on this project. McPier has promised to conduct an “international design search” to find the best architects and design team for the project. But we’ve heard that before dozens of times from pretty much every project that’s gone up in this city, and for the most part all we’ve gotten since the 90’s is beige concrete rectangles.

The irony here is that this used to be an area of warehouses and factories and a giant convention center. Then the city encouraged developers to put up residences to turn it into a neighborhood. Now the city’s gotten what it wanted, but at the same time wants its convention center to expand into that neighborhood. The seeds of mixed messages planted decades ago are causing growing pains today.

Headquarters Hotel Timeline

  • June, 2013 – Award the initial design contract
  • August, 2013 – Award the operator contract
  • December, 2013 – Complete bridging designs
  • May, 2014 – Award the design/build contract
  • November, 2014 – Complete the initial design
  • December, 2014 – Groundbreaking
  • September, 2016 – Initial occupancy
  • November, 2016 – Construction finish

Event Center Timeline

  • August, 2013 – Award the initial design contract
  • February, 2014 – Complete bridging designs
  • June, 2014 – Award the design/build contract
  • November, 2014 – Complete the initial design
  • December, 2014 – Groundbreaking
  • September, 2016 – Initial occupancy
  • November, 2016 – Construction finish
Editor

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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7 Comments

  1. Well written. One fact that is missing is that the project is probably a money loser and will cost the tax payer to build and cover losses. There are few conventions in the in-house and DePaul commissioned studies. A really independent study needs to be done before another design is commissioned and the project is approved.

    As a neighbor, I feel this is the right project in the wrong place and DePaul should locate in an area that needs this type of a project. Build the hotels, not a money losing arena that will hurt the community.

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    • I love how you mentioned “One fact that is missing is that the project is probably a money loser”. Which is absurd to state a fact and then open up for it not being correct by using “probably”. Silly man.

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    • Editor

      You bring up money, and that’s something I should have included in the article. Here’s how much each party is paying:

      McPier: $468 million
      Private investors: $250 million
      City of Chicago: $111.2 million
      DePaul: $70 million

      On paper if this is a failure, then the most the taxpayers will be out is $111.2 million — at least on paper. That figure includes the construction of the CTA Green Line station at Cermack and a lot of local street improvements. Since both of those are needed, the “on the hook” number would be less.

      A lot of people seem to want to vilify DePaul in this. I’m not sure where that’s coming from. DePaul is paying for the event center, and paying rent on the nights its used. DePaul isn’t getting a free ride here. Also, DePaul doesn’t seem to have a preference for the location of the arena/event center, and is willing to go with the south of 23rd Street recommendation of the PDNA.

      Based on the headlines, you’d think that Governor Quinn was giving DePaul a dump truck full of taxpayer cash to build the arena, but when I looked it up, that’s not true. All the state legislature did was authorize McPier to use the taxes its already collected for this project. From the May 31, 2013 Tribune:

      “The legislation would allow for the McCormick Place Exposition Authority, known as McPier, to receive authorization to use its bond fund, supported by hotel taxes and backstopped by state General Revenue Funds, to come up with $70 million for the arena project. McPier, which also runs Navy Pier, would receive another $55 million from a special city tax increment financing district funds and the lives of three TIFs would be extended for the arena and hotel project.”

      So every time a downtown resident paid 14.5%* sales tax on a Starbucks in the last five years, they contributed to this project.

      TIFs… well, that’s a whole different can of worms, and a debate for another time and place.

      (*An inexact figure. I don’t have a receipt near me to figure it out.)

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  2. You don’t do any justice to the criticism of the project. On funding the city is using Near South TIF funds to finance a city wide asset. The neighborhood already pays a 1% additional McPier tax on purchases in the area, now the City takes out TIF dollars that should be used on schools and parks to buy a tax producing lot to hand to McPier which will make it tax exempt? That is the opposite of the stated reason for TIFs.
    On folks not wanting to go out in winter, Reilly said at best they would book 15 events per year into the event center. You can’t find 15 (more likely 8) dates between may and October?
    On the ability to squeeze an event center into a residential area Monney was asked to name a single example where this has worked. He said Louisville, but then back tracked and agreed their arena sits between the convention area and a river. There isn’t enough room for an event center and you are putting it in an area with a single road — Cermak — that gets you access. Folks were upset about sitting in lots at Northerly Island for 45 minutes, wait until you have 3000 cars at McPier all wanting to leave a concert at the same time. There is no traffic study, no planning document no urban design or experience that shows this will work.

    Tell me again why does Chicago want (or need) to compete with Lousiville. make no small plans? A Staybridge discount hotel and a tiny event center — what visionary came up with that idea?

    Finally, this will be a loser. McPier says it will break even. That is based on selling luxury boxes at $45,000 a year and club seats at $1,200 a year. Depaul draaws 3,000 at best. Who is going to pay Bull/Blackhawk/UC prices to watch DePaul, or go to concerts with acts so not in demand that they can’t fill an arena bigger than 12,000?

    Sorry but your analysis is basically accepting the blather put out by the City and not paying attention at all or purposefully inaccurately reporting on the criticism.

    One final point, as to your position that local sentiment is “mixed” a survey with over 1,000 responses (statewide polls are based on half that) found over 70% were opposed to the event center at that location. That’s not mixed.

    Build it on the vacant areas at 23rd and State. If people won’t walk outside in winter that would be much closer to the new Green Line station and Depaul is the majority tenant. In fact DePaul woul rather it be there. It would also hopefully spur much needed development that would tie the Near South Side/Motor Row area to Chinatown, and area that has needed a bridge forever. And it would locate it in a place with several main streets where you could actually have a loading bay for semi’s, which are kind of a necessity for an arena, and not present for a center that sits behind a hotel off Cermak between residential strreets Prairie and Indiana.

    Isn’t this an architecture blog? How about a site analysis?

    Post a Reply
    • Editor

      Hi John, that’s quite a lot of text. I’ll address the parts that I can.

      “You don’t do any justice to the criticism of the project.”

      I’m not sure I was trying to. I’m just reporting what I see.

      “On folks not wanting to go out in winter, Reilly said at best they would book 15 events per year into the event center. You can’t find 15 (more likely 8) dates between may and October?”

      Well, no. I can’t find the dates at all. This is not McPier. This is an architecture blog. You make the mistake of thinking that an event only takes up the time of the event. Set-up and take-down of even a small event can take a day or more on either end. For the sake of argument, let’s be conservative and say it’s a day for set-up and a day for take-down. At 15 single-day events, you’re taking 45 days of use — a month and a half, and that’s assuming that each event is only one day long and not two or three or a week. If you know of an extra month and a half in the summer, then a lot of people would like to know about it so we can change our calendars and book longer vacations. Going with your estimate of 8 days, that’s still 24 days (again assuming an event only lasts one day). That’s over three weeks of time that you believe can be found out of thin air. That’s simply not realistic. Plus, the last thing you want to do is to have the facility be unused through the winter. The more it’s used, the more cost-effective it is in terms of maintenance and personnel.

      “On funding the city is using Near South TIF funds to finance a city wide asset. The neighborhood already pays a 1% additional McPier tax on purchases in the area, now the City takes out TIF dollars that should be used on schools and parks to buy a tax producing lot to hand to McPier which will make it tax exempt? That is the opposite of the stated reason for TIFs.”

      I’m not going to pretend to understand TIFs. I don’t think anyone does, even the people in city hall. I do know that I pay the McPier tax, too, and I don’t get anything from it, either. It’s like an extra tax just for living downtown.

      “On the ability to squeeze an event center into a residential area Monney was asked to name a single example where this has worked. He said Louisville, but then back tracked and agreed their arena sits between the convention area and a river.”

      I think it’s not accurate to call this a “residential area.” It was formerly a residential area, and then most recently an industrial area that is turning back into residential. But we’re not talking about putting this in the middle of a fully residential area. It’s more accurate to call it the edge of a residential area. You may be used to seeing it, but that giant convention center to your south is not an apartment building. Nor are the warehouses, abandoned buildings, industrial spaces, or surface parking lots that vastly outnumber the number of residential blocks.

      “There isn’t enough room for an event center and you are putting it in an area with a single road — Cermak — that gets you access. Folks were upset about sitting in lots at Northerly Island for 45 minutes, wait until you have 3000 cars at McPier all wanting to leave a concert at the same time. There is no traffic study, no planning document no urban design or experience that shows this will work.”

      You’re right — there is no traffic study yet. That’s part of the process. I didn’t mention traffic because it’s premature. When the traffic study comes out, we’ll see what it says.

      “Tell me again why does Chicago want (or need) to compete with Lousiville.”

      I didn’t tell you that once, so there’s no reason for me to reiterate it. No one has stated that Chicago is trying to compete with Louisville. Chicago is trying to compete with Las Vegas and Orlando, cities with BOTH large and mid-sized convention facilities, while downtown Chicago currently only has facilities designed for large gatherings. This was outlined in the article above.

      “Finally, this will be a loser. McPier says it will break even. That is based on selling luxury boxes at $45,000 a year and club seats at $1,200 a year.”

      Sounds to me like it’s a money maker. If it pays for itself with just the luxury boxes and club seats, then all the other tickets, and money from the dozens of other events through the year are profit centers. Also, it’s important to note that McPier isn’t a commercial enterprise. It’s purpose isn’t to make money for shareholders. Its purpose is to bring people to the city who then spend money with local businesses and make them money. By your math, this is a complete win-win.

      “Sorry but your analysis is…”

      I made no analysis. I’m not an analyst. The more you write, the more assumptions you make.

      “One final point, as to your position that local sentiment is ‘mixed’ a survey with over 1,000 responses (statewide polls are based on half that) found over 70% were opposed to the event center at that location. That’s not mixed.”

      I assume that you’re referring to the PDNA survey. That is hardly a scientific poll. Revisit your high school statistics courses and you’ll realize why it’s fundamentally flawed when an organization that’s against something polls its members about what they feel about that thing. I stand by the “mixed” sentiment, because that’s what I observed and what I’m told from the people I speak to in the South Loop, many of whom have not even heard of PDNA. At no point did I say it was “evenly mixed.” Again, assumptions.

      “Isn’t this an architecture blog? How about a site analysis?”

      Ummm… in what world do you believe “blog” = “survey team?” I’ll be happy to hire an analyst to study the situation, if you write the five-figure check.

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  3. Does anyone actually use the Arie Crown Site anymore? Why not repurpose that site? (Especially considering it already violates the Burnham plan). Last I saw, McPier was talking about putting a data center there.

    Post a Reply
    • Editor

      Arie Crown is still used. A quick look at the Ticketmaster site shows about six upcoming concerts.

      McPier says Arie Crown is too small. Its current capacity is 4,250 people. The proposed event center would be in the 10,000 range.

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