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|
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.
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)|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
Remember Fred Clarke's words . . .
There is really nothing like this site in the world. It's waiting for its moment in history.