Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hour of the Wolf: The Transformation of the Pivot Point of Chicago

There is really nothing like this site in the world, certainly not in Chicago.  It's pivotal. It's central   It's waiting for its moment in history - architect Fred W. Clarke
click images for larger view
 As the light of dawn seeped through the shutters of his small, lonely cabin, John Kinzie, Chicago's first permanent settler, arose one morning with a sense of foreboding.  In the middle of night, he had been awakened, not by a sound, but by the lack of it.  The howling of the wolves gathered around the ruins of Old Fort Dearborn, to which he had become so accustomed that they would lull him to sleep, stopped, suddenly, like an extinguished candle. As he slowly pulled back the heavy timber door, his eyes were momentarily blinded by the light of the sun flooding in like a great wave.  As John Kinzie looked down the river, he staggered back as if punched in the face, for this is what he saw . . .
These are the three towers approved by the Chicago Plan Commission last Thursday for Wolf Point, the parking lot that's at the center of Chicago's identify.  The small peninsula that makes up the current geography of Wolf Point is what you see represented between the two diagonal stems of the “Y” that, enclosed in a circle, forms the “Municipal Device” that is the official symbol of Chicago.  It represents the North and South branches of the Chicago River coming together to form the final leg that flows to Lake Michigan.

No structure, no tree, no blade of grass remains from John Kinzie's Wolf Point, but, until now, Wolf Point was the place where flush-with-the-river skyscrapers give way to an enduring, if crumbling, natural embankment . . .
It is the place where Chicago's dense downtown ends.   Remnants of the city's industrial past still define the edge, punctuated by the 225-foot-high smokestack of the 1911 Chicago and Northwestern Railway Power Station.
It's a district of loft buildings, viaducts, abject shacks and Metra trains entering Union Station at grade level, tripping an anachronistic symphony of the bells of crossing gates, behind which cars stand waiting as if still in 19th century Chicago, the modern city skyline safely off to the side.
That skyline is filled with towers along the river. Wolf Point, in contrast, is the prime site that is actually in the river, jutting south in a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.  As a surface parking lot, it's a minor, almost bucolic visual presence as you gaze down the East leg of the Chicago River.
River Point
 Swap out the parking for a 950-foot-high tower, and throw in another new 700-foot-high story tower, River Point at 444 West Lake, on the opposing bank of the river, covering up the now open railroad tracks, and you've pretty much completely redefined the profile of the Chicago River.  Does the new design live up to the “historic moment” Fred W. Clarke claims?

A Brief History of Wolf Point [or SKIP to the story today]

In the earliest days of the Chicago, the pivot of Wolf Point encompassed both the small peninsula which today bears that name, but the entire adjacent riverfront.  The city's earliest permanent settlers scattered their buildings across both banks.  There were no bridges.  The first ferry service didn't begin until 1829.  Crossings were via canoe.

The Miller Tavern was the first building on the Wolf Point peninsula.  The tannery that was added in 1831 was said to be Chicago's first factory.  As the city grew, river traffic boomed, and it was often as crowded with ships as rush-hour Kennedy is today with cars.
Wolf Point 1893 - Davidson and Sons building (9)
After the great fire of 1871, 10-story-high grain elevators rose on the river banks right across from Wolf Point, with a capacity of over a million bushels of grain.  To the north of the site, a battery of railroad tracks fed into the Wells Street Station, at Kinzie, which served 200 trains and 32,000 passengers a day.  On Wolf Point proper, the largest construction was a single-story warehouse and an 1872, five story building for Davidson and Sons Wholesale Marble and Granite.  In the 1890's, already battered by an economic recession, the company doubled up with "a fatal investment" that bet big on becoming a major player in the booming bicycle manufacturing industry.  Within two years the boom went bust, and in 1897 the Davidson and Sons imploded into "one of the worst failures the marble trade has ever experienced", with debts of $611,718.48.  According to planner and historian Lawrence Okrent, Wolf Point's most enduring function was as “a storage yard for bulk construction materials.”

In 1911, the passenger traffic of the Wells Street Station was moved to the new Chicago and Northwestern depot at Madison and Canal.  By 1930, the Marshall Field estate had demolished Wells Street Station to make way for the construction of the massive Merchandise Mart, the largest building in the world, spelling doom for another irreplaceable lost Chicago landmark, Henry Hobson Richardson's 1885 Marshall Field Wholesale Store.  Throughout the decade, Marshall Field's wholesale business declined, and in 1945 the 4-million-square-foot building, on the site of an Indian trading post, was sold to another kind of trader, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had made his initial fortune trading in alcohol, as one of the Prohibition era's most enterprising bootleggers.

The Mart thrived under the Kennedy's, and in 1977 they jumped Orleans street to Wolf Point to erect an annex, the 2-million-square-foot Apparel Center, 24 stories of bunkered banality, topped by a Holiday Inn.  The balance of the peninsula became a surface parking lot.
The sheer awfulness of the  Apparel Center was not accidental.  At a public meeting on the Wolf Point proposal this past May, Lawrence Okrent, who was working at Skidmore Owings and Merrill at the time,  remembered that “everybody knew and everybody understood that the Apparel Mart was meant to be a utilitarian background building .  It was never going to be exceedingly prominent and it was always imagined to accede to something much more consequential at Wolf Point.”

But for the better part of half a century, the Apparel Center, with its floor after floor of blank concrete walls, remained the only consequential thing at Wolf Point.  Even as, on the river's west bank, Harry Weese punched windows into blank facades to create the Fulton House condominiums out of a 1898 cold storage warehouse best known for being painted over as a 170-foot-high ad for Old Forester bourbon, the Apparel Center continued to impose a warehouse aesthetic that had its own banal majesty.
Over time, the Apparel Center began to transition from garment trade showrooms to general office space, marked by late 1980's improvements that included Helmut Jahn's second-story pedestrian bridge to the Mart and street level upgrades from Bayer Blender Belle. In the 1990's, a grid of windows was punched into the blank concrete walls of the lower floors.  In 2004, the Chicago Sun-Times moved in, placings its nameplate on the facade.  Sometime later this year, the last apparel-related tenant will have been eased out of the building.  Fully unclothed, the building's name is now its address, 350 North Orleans.

The Rumble at Wolf Point

In 1998 Kennedy Enterprises cashed out their stake in the Merchandise Mart and 350 North Orleans for over half a billion dollars, but held on to those underused 3.85 acres - parcel “B” -  on Wolf Point, playing a waiting game.  In 2006, the family entered into a joint venture with Hines Interests, a developer with a long history in Chicago, mostly recently with the completion of the 60-story 300 North LaSalle in 2009, three blocks down the river.

After interviewing “six of the most world class architectural firms that exist”, Hines brought in Pelli Clarke Pelli to oversee the final, big payoff.  bKL Architecture, Wolff Landscape Architecture, and Magellan Development round out the development team.
The results were unveiled at a public meeting at 350 North Orleans last May:  a billion dollar project, to be built in three phases, with three towers ranging from 525 to 950 feet in height, nearly 4 million total square-feet of space, 1,285 parking spaces and 100,000 square feet of park, riverwalk and plaza.
And perhaps best of all, it's all supposed to be done without public subsidies or TIF money.

The meeting, called by  Alderman Brendan Reilly - whose 42nd ward includes Wolf Point - allowed developer, architects, and zoning and traffic consultants to present the development proposal to Reilly's constituents, many of whom, rallying around a new organization, Friends of Wolf Point,  were anything but happy campers.

Reilly held a second meeting in the fall to announce some revisions designed to answer at least some of the public concerns.  Things seemed to be going along swimmingly, but shortly thereafter Reilly  
was blindsided in November when revised documents filed by the developer suddenly asked approval for up to 1,800 hotel rooms on the site. The word "hotel" had never been uttered in the initial public meeting in May.  Reilly yanked Wolf Point from the Plan Commission's December agenda, and scheduled a third public meeting, at which veteran fixer and zoning lawyer Jack George tried to re-assure attendees that no deception was intended, and everything was going to be fine.

That didn't assuage Friends, which continues to oppose the project on the basis of unsupportable density, traffic congestion, and violation of zoning ordinance's 30-foot setback requirement for new construction along the river.  (The architects are attempting to get around this by supporting a building essentially flush to river edge on ultra-tall pilotis that create open space at the level of the riverwalk.)  FoWP also wants written assurances that Wolf Point won't somehow become the site for a new Chicago casino.
Cutting the maximum number of hotels down to 450 appears was enough, however, for Reilly,  announced his support for the revised plan, and shepherded it to unanimous approval by the Chicago Plan Commission last Thursday, January 24th.

Fair enough. Things change.  The city has had over a century to buy this property for a public park, which in many ways would have been a more natural fit - pun intended - for this parcel.  It never did, however, and now it is not unreasonable that the Kennedy's want to cash in on their investment.  It is also not unreasonable, however, given the seminal location that is Wolf Point, to hold the development to the highest standard, even if that standard exceeds the one currently set by the developer and their architects.

The Wolf Point Plan: Is it Good Enough?

There is much to like about the proposal from a civic standpoint.  The master plan incorporates “Six Master Plan Principles,” that refer to context, framing, textured facades with rich materials, and maximizing the distances between buildings while minimizing the footprints, with an emphasis on transparency and openness at a ground level of landscaped public space

Foremost,  the master plan takes the Point from parking lot to park.  The footprint of the three towers could have taken up to 60% of the surface of the site under the Planned Development ordinance.  In actual design, they take up 25%  Parking remains, but the cars are pushed underground and out of sight.  “You'll never know - cross my heart and hope to die - that there's anything concrete or structure or parking below,” said noted landscape architect Ted Wolff at the May public meeting.
 “We are proposing to plant native and adaptive species. They will be hardy in this climate.  They will be suitable for this location. They'll be repairing species that we expect to see along the river like maple trees and swamp white oaks and elms and things like that.”

By the time all three towers are completed, there will be nearly 900 linear feet of riverwalk at Wolf Point.  70% of the site will be parkland, 40% of the site planted.  The towers will be at least 75 feet away from each other, but at the public, lobby level that grows to 100 feet.  Already one major flaw of the May plan has been revised, with the "alpha point" of the riverwalk expanded in width and moved out from under the shadow of the south tower, free from the tall pilotis that are being used to lift up the buildings and tuck public space beneath. 
Although its defined as "phase two", that south tower may be a while in coming. Initially, only the west, residential tower is shovel ready, and only the westernmost portion of the park and riverwalk will be completed as part of the initial construction, with the balance of Wolf Point remaining a parking lot pending implementation of the future phases. “In the interim,” says Wolff, ”all the landscaping on that riverbank will stay.  All the existing landscaping in the surface parking lot will stay, as well.”

So far, the most energetic push-back over the plan for Wolf Point has come Friends of Wolf Point.  They're articulate and capable and they've hired a good lawyer.  I don't see much point in doubling their efforts.

What there has not been much of is discussion of the proposal for Wolf Point from a civic design perspective.  For one of the most visible and defining sites in Chicago, the silence is eerie and unsettling.  Is the design that good, or have we merely grown that docile?

Right now, the developers simply want to get the West Tower going, and, concerns of the FoWP aside, I can think of no reason why they anyone should stop them.  Hugging the shore, the West Tower does, it's true,  extend the canyon wall of the Apparel Center, but it's also at the northernmost point of the site, leaving the area to the south open for the substantial new segment of park that comes with the tower's construction.  The way the landscaped walkway beneath and beside it meets the river is much more gracious than the esplanade of River Bend on the opposite bank, and the overall architecture a distinct improvement over the white cliff  of mediocrity that's the nearby Left Bank at K Station.
At the May meeting, Tom Kerwin of bKL talked about “the effort to introduce balconies so that they're carved into the building and not tacked on. . . The curtain wall has accents of horizontal tubes which will further conceal and integrate with the balconies so that those tubes will form the balcony handrails and hold the form of these three-layered planes . . .”
So, to me at least, the West Tower is unobjectionable, except it really needs a name.  Wouldn't everyone want to be able say they live at Goose Crossing?
But what about the other two towers?  In May, the architects seemed, understandably, enamored of their own work.  Clarke talked about “our notion that the taller buildings should be tapered at the  bottom and at the top.  They should go in a sail-like fashion so that they reduce in size as they reach the ground, reduce in size as they reach the sky and in that way they become unique and iconic elements in the Chicago skyline . . .  that curved form could be very, very powerful.”  It's intended as a link to Wolf Point's maritime past, but I doubt it will grasped by anyone who hasn't had the concept explained to them beforehand.

And despite what the carefully controlled renderings would suggest, the other two towers are massive, especially compared to the first phase West Tower.  They're 50 to 80% taller than the West Tower, and hold over seven times the square footage.  The East Tower is especially tubby, but since its also at the northernmost point of the site, and not scheduled until Phase III, let's let it go for now.
Phase II is a different story.  The Master plan refers to it as the “Iconic South Tower”.  I call it “The Mothership”.  At 950 feet, it would be the eighth tallest building in Chicago, and have up to half again as much square footage as 350 North Orleans to the north.  Its not that stats, however, but the siting that give the The Mothership its unprecedented prominence.  Which leads me to three observations:

I. The Mothership needs to be moved back from rivers edge.

The Wolf Point master plan's objective of maximizing space between the three towers is admirable, but it shouldn't be achieved at the expense of crushing the vistas down the Chicago river.  Again, Wolf Point is a peninsula that demarcates the turn of the river, south and north.  Up until now, it's been visually porous.  You can see over and beyond it, to the sense of the city continuing out into the distance.  In the new master plan, the huge, tall towers build up a concluding mesa, a visual wall obscuring the progression of the urban fabric.

This is the one rendering from the official presentation that gives you an idea of what it will be like,  centered from a perspective north of the river along Wacker Drive . . .
That doesn't entirely give you a feel of the change of the vista down the river, so I created this crude mockup . . .
Don't bite my head off - the scale and placement are wildly approximate.  (If someone wants to volunteer to give me something more accurately rendered, I'll be glad to share it.) There's no shortage of tall buildings along the river, but The Mothership will be the first to be thrust into it, completely redefining one Chicago's most historic vistas.

Is it too much to ask that it's presence be not quite so aggressive?  An argument could be made that The Mothership, rather than pointing due south, would better be angled to the southwest to demarcate the river's turning.

II.  The informal edge should survive.

When its come to developers, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is that doesn't love a natural riverbank.
 “We sort of like the look of this kind of accidental, natural riverbank,” Ted Wolff said in May.  “It's eroding, OK.  It's unsustainable to us.  We've already lost 5,000 square feet of developable land just because of the water lapping ever so incessantly at the base there. We are proposing a bulkhead.  We are proposing the very condition you see all along the main branch , all along the south branch and through much of the north branch where it is more developed.  And so that's pretty clear that's what we need to do to develop this as an urban riverwalk, and we think that's the best way to do, to get people to the water's edge.  We want people at the promenade.  We want them at the railing.  Like when you're in a cruise ship, or when you're on a roof garden, you want to get out  to that balcony , you want to get to the railing that's the alpha spot to be.  That's where the excitement is, not to be held back by a bushy, shruby riverbank.”
No one likes their property just floating away, and there's no denying that structured walks are the standard all up and down the river.  To me, however,  that's all the more argument not to make the last stretch that's different the same as everywhere else.

As I've written before, I find the slice of the riverwalk on the south bank from Michigan Avenue east to be especially refreshing and reinvigorating.  Only a small portion of the riverbank is natural, but it doesn't have the usual feel of something planned and controlled down to the last detail.   When I see people sitting happily on the movable seating, watching traffic on the river go by, it's like a scene out of a painting by Renoir.
Wolf Point's four points of uniqueness - as a peninsula in the Chicago river, as the site of the city's earliest settlement, as the “bend” that eases the river into its branches, and the “Y’ in the official symbol of the city - deserves something beyond the standard treatment, no matter how well executed.
The standard river promenade, that "alpha" point of visual, visceral urban excitement?  By all means.  But to use it to erase the last remnant of the natural state from which Chicago arose is not so much an enhancement, as an impoverishing.  Is the soft, natural edge of today's Wolf Point a direct link to Miller's Tavern?  No, it's a re-creation.  But even so, it's a necessary antidote to the mistaken, if pervasive misconception that a great city arises out of order alone.  Improvisation is the creative spark that fuels the growth of cities, and it should be allowed to endure at Wolf Point, in a generous outlying bib to the formal promenade, where nature, lightly guided, may continue to take its course, and people can make their own paths.

III. The Mothership should be an “iconic” design in deed as well as in word.

The other thing you'll notice from all the renderings is that, architects' protestations notwithstanding, this is a design more workmanlike than inspired.  For 300 North LaSalle, one of many towers along the river, that was more than enough.  For the iconically strategic site that is Wolf Point, it falls far short.
When he looks at The Mothership, Fred Clarke sees a poetic, architectural vision of a great billowing sail.  Do you see it?  Or do you see something that, in the last analysis, is more generic than iconic, veering dangerously close to being a supersized, upscale version of a background office tower. 

Remember Fred Clarke's words . . . 
There is really nothing like this site in the world.  It's waiting for its moment in history.
Take a good look. Past the surface glitz.  Past the slick PRIs this design equal to the historic moment?  On this once-in-a-lifetime blank canvass, redefining Chicago's civic character for a new century, is this really the best we can do?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

it most certainly is NOT the best we can do! since it is in the realm of a distant "phase 2" there is time to demand that whatever gets built is deserving of its "moment in history"

Anonymous said...

The scale in your "down the River" west view mock up is off. Wolf Point's Mothership south tower will be 90 stories tall. River Point will be merely 45 stories high.

Moreover, once the Chicago River is filled in at the "alpha" of Wolf Point to create more "land" for the south tower, the "down the River" east views from River Point and its public park on the north side will be obstructed by the massive south tower at Wolf Point

Anonymous said...

Henry Hobbs Richardson? it's Hobson

Lynn Becker said...

this is what comes form being your own editor. thanks - corrected.

Anonymous said...

They should just drop two buildings and make the main one taller like 104 - 106 floors . Their havent been anymore 100 or more story buildings since the Sears Tower

one of the builds block veiw of a landmark

Patric said...

PCP is the office you chose when you want to pay lip service to architecture critics, enthusiasts and future tenants interested in name recognition.
They don't do innovative or interesting work. They will give you a darn good approximation of a mildly above average office tower though. They'll give you a mildly above average curtain wall with a mildly interesting form, wrapped in a fancy name and call it "Architecture" (capital A intended).
Frankly, its a farse. If Pelli does the main towers, expect mediocrity. No where in their resume is there an example to indicate we should expect more than cookie cutter corporate drivel.

Vitruvius said...

Brilliant piece. Wolf Point deserves THE BEST. What more can WE do??

Todd Mills said...

"...and in 1977 they jumped Wells street to Wolf Point to erect an annex"

Don't you mean that they jumped Orleans to Wolf Point?

Lynn Becker said...

Yes I do! Corrected - thanks!