LIKELY WIN: Chicago Union Station Developers “Completely Revise Their Vision for the Project” (Chicago 7 2018)

Revised Chicago Union Station Addition, Rendering Credit: Riverside Investment & Development
Revised Chicago Union Station Addition Close-up (low-resolution), Rendering Credit: Riverside Investment & Development

UPDATE: After the avalanche of negative press following the release of the proposed addition to the top of the Chicago Union Station, the developers Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties have “decided to completely revise their vision for the project.”

Per 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly’s newsletter, “After the first community meeting on June 25, the original proposal was deemed unacceptable by the community and the Alderman due to architectural and traffic concerns. As a result, the development team decided to completely revise their vision for the project. Their revisions respond directly to the community feedback gathered at the first community meeting. The proposal includes an amendment to Planned Development No. 376 to permit the Developer to build 400 hotel rooms at Union Station and build an office building on the corner of Clinton, Van Buren, and Canal Streets.”

In a rendering published by the Chicago Sun-Times, the seven-story addition has been replaced with a lower-profile rooftop deck, however, details are not clearly visible. It is also unclear which architect is responsible for the rendering, however, Goettsch Partners has been working on the new construction high-rise on the block south of the station, as reported by Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin.

New updated design and details will be presented during the Tuesday, September 11 community meeting hosted by Alderman Reilly and Neighbors of the West Loop (NOWL) from 6:00 to 8:00 pm in Chicago Union Station’s beautifully restored Burlington Room. This meeting is open the community and the general public. All are welcome to attend.

“Whatever the revised design turns out to be, the decision to jettison the original plan is a major victory for historic preservationists,” wrote Blair Kamin, the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune.

During a well-attended community meeting on June 25, Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago Executive Director, received an enthusiastic round of applause when he said, “Rooflines, elevations, and interior volumes are protected under the landmark ordinance and we think you’re going to step over these lines. We’d like to see no building on top of this amazing station, and instead suggested transferring the additional floors to the new high-rise buildings proposed next door.” (Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 6/26/18)

Ward Miller suggested an alternate approach might be to build out an extensive rooftop terrace on the existing Union Station rooftop, which would be directly above the proposed 330-room hotel within the historic office floors. Rooftop restaurants and lounges, with both indoor and outdoor spaces, have proved to be incredibly popular and highly valuable assets for developers and building owners throughout the Loop. In some cases, the rooftop lounges have become so successful that they have become a primary income generator for the entire building and a powerful draw for the hotels within the buildings below.

Coupled with a hotel below, a series of rooftop restaurants, lounges, and event spaces could become a destination unto itself and powerfully reactive one of Chicago’s greatest landmark buildings. Activating Union Station’s historic rooftop with a use or series of uses that would be open to all could become a huge draw. Examples of highly successful rooftop restaurant lounges include the Wit Hotel’s rooftop bar, Cindy’s rooftop restaurant at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, the London House rooftop restaurant, and the Peninsula Hotel’s newly opened bar.

Significant recent preservation-sensitive restoration work at Union Station by Amtrak has reversed the long-term trend of decades of demolition and deferred maintenance. Several important interior spaces and features have returned to public use, such as the Women’s Lounge, now known as the Burlington Room, the Dining Room/ Men’s Lounge and Barber Shop, which now form a series of passenger lounges. The restoration of the Great Hall/Waiting Room is nearly complete, along with a comprehensive restoration of the Great Hall Skylight. Preservation Chicago has played an active role as a consulting partner in this process with Amtrak, the City of Chicago, and design teams, and we both recognize the challenges and applaud these amazing accomplishments.

The decision to include Union Station as 2018 “Chicago 7 Most Endangered” proved prescient when at a June 25, 2018 community meeting, developers Riverside Investment & Development and joint-partner Convexity Properties presented architect Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s rooftop addition proposal. The conceptual addition was part of the Chicago Union Station Master Plan, along with the construction of five new high-rise towers estimated at over 1.5 million square feet on the blocks directly to the south of Union Station.

A robust conversation and wide opposition to the proposed seven-story addition made approval by the 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly and Mayor Rahm Emanuel more difficult without a significant rethinking. A sampling of the responses to the originally proposed design is below.

Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic from the Chicago Tribune, laid out the existential challenge to Union Station, a Designation Chicago Landmark designed by Daniel Burnham and his successor firm in 1925 this way.

“When the City of Chicago granted [Union] Station official landmark status in 2002, it buttressed its case by noting that the station is the last great historic railroad terminal still in use in Chicago; that it’s one of the nation’s most architecturally and historically significant passenger railroad stations, and that its soaring Great Hall is one of the country’s great interior public spaces.”

So the stakes for this forlorn but beloved Landmark, designed by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White and completed in 1925, couldn’t be higher. Which begs this question: Are we stuck with this fourth-rate design or are Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, in whose ward the station sits, going to exercise their considerable clout and push for something better?”

In his column, Blair Kamin described the proposed rooftop addition as one that “would plunk a squat modernist box atop the existing structure’s neo-classical pedestal. They go together as well as Rauner and Pritzker, the City Council and ethics reform.”

“The seven-story addition and its 404 rental apartments would bring to the forlorn but grand train station all the grandeur of a Holiday Inn.”…. “Worse, its exterior, a skeletal metal and glass grid is at odds with the station’s carefully-composed classical aesthetic. Despite the architects’ best efforts, it’s as though one era of architecture had been piled, willy-nilly, atop another.”… “The juxtaposition of past and present isn’t as violent as the spaceship-like seating bowl that’s plopped atop the classical colonnades of Soldier Field. It’s just banal, which Burnham buildings never are.”… “[The] addition design for Union Station does not inspire confidence. A building that’s part of the Burnham legacy deserves better, especially when it forms a gateway to Chicago.”…

Additionally, Blair Kamin included some of the more colorful reactions to the proposed rooftop addition on social media and in response to his earlier column.

“On the web, architecture critics and sidewalk superintendents have been piling on with nasty metaphors: An ice cube for a colossal architectural headache! A self-inked address stamper! A suburban office building lifted off its foundations by a tornado and dropped atop the neo-classical station!” … According to prominent architect Edward Keegan in his review published in Crain’s Chicago Business, “The SCB scheme looks like a banal government-issue office building of the 1960s has been plunked down on top of the original. And it’s not the contrast that’s the problem…The fact that this design has been publicly unveiled is an insult to Chicago’s alleged position as a place that takes architecture seriously. It requires a complete do-over.”

Out-spoken architecture critic Lynn Becker released the following review on his twitter feed which is reprinted in its entirety,

“How can people with a proven track record of striking towers and graceful restorations come up with such a stinking rotten fish of a design?

Done by SCB in a style best described as Plop Architecture Revival, it perches atop the Burnham Company’s iconic Union Station like a gigantic vulture spaceship of mediocrity. It’s the poster child refutation of the increasingly unjustifiable old saw about Chicago as the city that “cares about architecture.”

It should be called “The Viable” since that’s the justification for the design that came up several times in last night’s unveiling. The donut of space that exists along the perimeter of the Great Hall’s giant skylight just wasn’t wide enough for double rows of pricey apartments along a central corridor. More depth. We need more depth! Hence, “The Viable” which has absolutely no justification as architecture, only as the rawest economics.

Which is doubly sad as the building it desecrates is given a masterful renovation in the SCB plan, preserving the grand entrances along Jackson and Adams and their view into the Great Hall even as they’re repurposed them as entrances to a new hotel and the apartments, respectively. The deadened Clinton Street facade is opened up, the stoned-up spaces returned to windows, and a new entrance inserted into the long ago incinerated Fred Harvey restaurant at the mid-point of the Great Hall. New lighting would accentuate the building’s best visual qualities.

Its great stuff. It’s like they spent all their talent on reviving the original building, and were left running on empty when it came to designing the addition. The Elbphilharmonie it’s not. It’s what you’d see in a dying, middle-tier rustbelt city desperate for development.

Are we that desperate? If the Landmarks Commission doesn’t reject this design, they should fold up shop and put a big “Just Kidding” sign next to their mission statement.”

According to architecture reviewer Elizabeth Blasius in her column in The Architect’s Newspaper, “In 2004, Chicago watched historic Soldier Field become a toilet bowl. In 2019, Union Station will become a self-inked address stamper….If approved, the addition on Union Station could cause a paradigm shift in the way Chicago Landmarks are approached by potential developers, broadcasting a message that cultural and architectural resources are only of value if they are monetized to their fullest extent, and that the Landmarks Ordinance can soften in the face of economic motivators. The proposed addition is not only an imbalance in terms of design; it’s also condescending to the station itself, the architectural equivalent of a head patting, or worse. Ringing out like the 2004 renovation of Soldier Field (a project that curiously won an award for design excellence by the AIA the same year it was recommended to be stripped of its National Historic Landmark designation), this is new bullying old.”

Chicago Curbed editor Jay Koziarz questioned what the precedent of the potential rooftop addition construction would mean for the future of Chicago’s landmarks. “Looking beyond the initial knee jerk reactions and pithy comments, the Union Station overhaul will be a key battle for preservationists with the potential to set future precedents with regards to what can be done to Chicago’s protected, historically significant buildings. The decision to move ahead ultimately lies with the city, so if you’re truly horrified give Alderman Brendan Reilly and the Chicago Landmarks Commission a call.” (Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 6/27/18)

Preservation Chicago strongly opposes any large, multi-story, rooftop addition to Chicago Union Station that doesn’t step-back and conform to landmark standards. The development team can easily build the additional square footage across the street without adversely affecting a world-class Chicago Landmark. Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the Chicago Union Station Master Plan contemplate five new construction high-rise towers equaling over 1.5 million square feet on the blocks directly to the south of Union Station. So by transferring the buildable air rights from Union Station, the development team could recover any lost square footage. In his column, Blair Kamin endorsed this as a possible solution to this problem.

Additional Reading
Column: Much-derided Union Station plan shelved, but what comes next? Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 9/4/18

New renderings for Union Station office tower acquired, Michael Sneed, Chicago Sun-Times, 8/31/18

Developers have ‘completely revised’ controversial Union Station addition [Updated]; A meeting to discuss the new design is set for September 11, Jay Koziarz, 8/31/18

Column: Union Station plans on the wrong track, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/26/18

Column: We’re only stuck with the lousy Union Station design if we fail to rethink it. Let the debate begin, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 6/27/18

An insult to Chicago’s architectural bona fides, Edward Keegan, in Crain’s Chicago Business, 6/26/18

Will a proposed addition turn Chicago’s Union Station into the new Soldier Field?, Elizabeth Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/26/18 

The Internet Isn’t A Fan Of Union Station Redesign: It Looks Like A ‘Dopey Derby Hat,’ A Fishtank, A Spaceship, Kelly Bauer, Block Club Chicago, 6/28/18

Developers unveil plan to build hotel, apartments atop Chicago’s Union Station, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 6/26/18


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