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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