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David Hovey has finally headed into the city, with Optima Chicago Center. Pioneer/Cityfront, raised high above the natural level of the city, remains ungraciously integrated to the lower, rapidly developing neighborhood to the east. Is it too early for reform?
A Short (?) History of Pioneer Court and Cityfront Center
The first thing to remember is that what we experience as the usual terra firma promenade of streets and sidewalks is often actually a massive succession of viaducts. Where Pioneer Court stands today was the site the home and trading post of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable in 1770's, which became the mansion of early settler John Kinzie in the early 1800's. It was here that one of early Chicago's great economic engines, the McCormick Reaper company, built its factories, and it was here, after it all burnt down in the Great Fire of 1871, that the James S. Kirk and Company constructed the brick-walled factory - five stories high, 520 feet long - where its 600 workers turned out 50,000 tons of soap each year. Although the plant was described as "a model of cleanliness", the rest of the riverfront was a seemingly random, but densely interlocking matrix of docks, roads, rails, grain elevators and industrial structures that cared little about putting on an attractive face.
great bridge envisioned by the Burnham Plan, it was raised up 35 feet above natural grade to allow all those commercial functions to continue unimpeded below. As is often the case, however, the functions which were carefully accommodated by a visionary new project were already in decline. Less than a decade after the Michigan Avenue Bridge's 1920 completion, the Kirk soap company was sold to Procter and Gamble and the factory demolished.
The decline in river-bank industry was hastened by the bridge's construction, which began to transform North Michigan Avenue into what would eventually come to be known as the "Magnificent Mile," with the gleaming new Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower its two sentinels. The Kirk factory site, just south of Tribune Tower, remained an open pit and a surface parking lot.
|photograph courtesy C. William Brubaker Collection, UIC|
|photograph courtesy The Chuckman Collection|
As recounted in City Front Center, The Design and Approval Process, a 1988 dissertation by Wyllys Thomas Baird and Anne Elizabeth Winkler, an early plan envisioned decking over the entire site at the level of Pioneer Court, but a 1984 master plan created by Alexander Cooper of Cooper, Robertson and Partners opted instead for decking over only the portion west of Columbus.
That plan took the 1970's development Illinois Center as the poster child for how not to do a mega-project. With its endless dull corridors, repetitive buildings and seclusion from Michigan Avenue, Illinois Center was the place everyone loved to hate. Unlike the recently fashionable "superblock" concept of development that Cooper rejected, Cityfront Center, to be built west of Columbus behind Tribune Tower and the Equitable building, would be made up of regular-sized blocks connected to the existing streetgrid. Cooper was careful to maintain vistas, such as the view from Ogden Slip to Tribune Tower in the distance. Instead of small "vest pocket" parks such as you can find next to the Harris Bank or Brunswick (George Dunne) buildings downtown, Cooper opted for a new $23 million central greenspace, designed by Ted Wolff when he was still at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill as a "grand civic space. Trees and landscaping . . . in the center of a one-way loop roadway system." The $55 to $75 million cost of the new infrastructure was completely borne by the developers.
An initial proposal to provide vehicular access to Cityfront Center along a new street to be constructed just south of Tribune Tower was blocked by community groups, but Pioneer Court was still torn out and reconstructed along the lines we see today. Pioneer Fountain was demolished. The 37-story-high NBC Tower was completed in 1989, and the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center followed in 1994. The Fairbanks began in 2000, stalled after the parking garage floors were constructed, and then was finally completed in 2008. Hovey's Optima Center is scheduled to open next year. As you can see in my crudely annotated map, several undeveloped parcels remain.
|map: Google Maps; crude amendations by author|
Long gone are the planters and the fountains, the concrete seating circles, the handsome streamlined pavilion that housed escalators descending into the Equitable's lower level arcade. All swept away in the 1990's rehab. Gone also Marilyn, Forever - not to mention John Kearney's metallic but anatomically correct Moose. We are left with this enormous, flat, featureless plain that, aside from the occasional art fair, remains an uninviting, windswept nullity.
Equitable has an NBC sidewalk studio that, unlike the similar facilities for ABC on State Street and CBS at Dearborn and Washington, actually turns its back on the plaza and the public. Although new dining from Bottleneck Management was announced for the WGN Radio storefront studio space this past January, there are still no restaurants or cafes, and the only shop is the University of Chicago bookstore in the Gleacher Center. Even though Pioneer Court was rebuilt to co-ordinate with Cityfront Plaza, there is no sense of continuity between them in either style or plan.