Op-ed: Helmut Jahn and I re-imagined Lakeside Center in 2011. The city can still take advantage. (Chicago 7 2016 & 2021)

“In a recent Tribune op-ed, Barbara Koenen called on city leaders to convert McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center exhibition hall into the country’s largest municipal sports and recreation complex. Koenen wrote that, instead of catering to ‘inward-facing exhibits for out-of-town conventioneers,’ why not repurpose the aging structure into a state-of-the-art amenity for all Chicagoans and visitors to enjoy?

“World-renowned architect Helmut Jahn, who with Gene Summers designed Lakeside Center, which was completed in 1971, spent many years asking similar questions about the building. Lakeside Center represented an evolutionary outgrowth of the modernist principles Jahn and Summers honed together — executed on an unprecedented scale. The structure is undoubtedly an important piece of 20th-century architecture, but Helmut and the team of architects he led at JAHN until his passing in 2021 revisited the building, exploring ways to unlock its untapped potential and incorporate the latest technology.

“In 2011, Helmut and I embarked on a significant design exercise for Lakeside Center, and we arrived at a solution similar to Koenen’s: turn the building into a year-round hub for athletics and recreation that emphasizes public access and sustainability. Under our conceptual plan, the massive exhibition hall would accommodate an Olympic-sized indoor pool, speed skating rink, sports museum, go-cart circuit and more. A new winter garden — perhaps more compelling now that Navy Pier’s is gone — would contain restaurants and retail set among lush landscaping. A ‘sky terrace’ projecting above the roofline would provide unbeatable views of Lake Michigan and the downtown skyline.

“The building’s architectural profile — with its Miesian grid system and broad Prairie School-influenced overhanging eaves — would be preserved but updated to reflect its new use. The sprawling opaque roof would be transformed into a vast array of solar collectors for generating on-site electricity and allowing natural light to fill the interior spaces. The redesign aligns with the city of Chicago’s latest sustainability goals and vision for powering buildings with renewable energy by 2035 and would correct a historical wrong by reglazing Lakeside Center with bird-friendly glass to minimize collisions during migratory season.

“Helmut and I also saw opportunities to convert the site’s hardscaped plazas and loading zones into new park space and landscaped bike and pedestrian connections to the Chicago Lakefront Trail. The location is rich with multimodal transportation options and would welcome Chicagoans from all communities by offering easy access to DuSable Lake Shore Drive (with parking below ground), as well as service from the Metra Electric and South Shore lines that currently stop at McCormick Place. The location will have even more connectivity should the transit center at the proposed One Central project near Soldier Field become a reality.

“JAHN incorporated many of these same design, sustainability and accessibility principles into its McCormick Place Rivers Casino bid in partnership with Rush Street Gaming, Farpoint Development, McLaurin Development Partners and Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. The plan even earned the support of esteemed organizations such as Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and Friends of the Parks. Although the city is moving in a different direction for the casino, JAHN believes Chicago’s leaders should understand the inherent benefits of repurposing Lakeside Center in a way that prioritizes equitable access for the public to health and wellness opportunities and lakefront green space.

“As an important piece of Chicago’s modernist architectural heritage, Lakeside Center is too valuable to further neglect or consider for demolition. The building requires an estimated $400 million in repairs, but replacing the renowned structure would cost substantially more. Doing nothing is not an option.

“The concerns the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority raised over the casino and loss of meeting space will need to be addressed. Lakeside Center is still important to McPier for attracting conventions of a certain size — especially its lower-level exhibition space.

“We believe it’s possible to retool the building with the flexibility to accommodate the needs of McPier while still creating recreation and entertainment opportunities that will complement, rather than compete against, what McCormick Place and Arie Crown Theater offer. The addition of recreational programming would attract tourists near and far, and special sporting events, concession sales and naming/branding deals could be some major cash generators for the city.

“Chicago’s lakefront is the envy of the world because it is “forever open, clear and free.” Let’s return the site of Lakeside Center to the people of Chicago and make this iconic building a shining beacon — rather than an exception — of that ideal.The adaptive reuse of Lakeside Center can provide Chicagoans with the vibrant lakefront jewel they so deserve. Philip Castillo is managing director at JAHN.”

Read the full editorial at the Chicago Sun-Times

Helmut Jahn and I re-imagined Lakeside Center in 2011. The city can still take advantage, Philip Castillo, Chicago Tribune, 4/8/22


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