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Massive redevelopment plan for Chicago’s Union Station breaks cover

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The multi-phase, multi-tower project will feature over 3 million square feet of mixed-use space

Goettsch Partners

After formally launching its search for a master developer back in October of 2015, Amtrak has selected a firm to revitalize Chicago’s 92-year-old Union Station and maximize the commercial potential of 14 acres of surrounding downtown real estate. Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development Co. has come out ahead in a four-way final competition against fellow developers Golub & Co., Sterling Bay, and The John Buck Company. The initial conceptual design from Riverside development partner Convexity Properties calls for 3.1 million square feet of office, residential, hotel, and retail space and is estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

Riverside Investment & Development certainly has the chops for such an undertaking. Under the leadership of former John Buck Company executive John O'Donnell, the firm recently opened a 1.2 million-square-foot Class-A office tower at 150 N. Riverside and landed Bank of America to anchor the upcoming 800-foot-tall skyscraper at 110 N. Wacker. Considering both projects were designed by Goettsch Partners and that the Chicago-based architecture firm is also behind the restoration of Union Station’s Burlington Room and the ongoing renovation of the Great Hall skylight, it’s perhaps little surprise that Riverside will partner with Goettsch for Amtrak’s master redevelopment plan.

Goettsch Partners
Goettsch Partners
Goettsch Partners
Goettsch Partners

The highly ambitious, mixed-use project will be built in three phases. The first would focus entirely on Union Station’s block-sized headhouse. New retail and a food hall would occupy roughly 110,000 square feet of unoccupied areas flanking the historic building’s voluminous Great Hall—including the fire-damaged former location of the old Fred Harvey restaurant. Another 100,000 square feet of offices and hotel rooms would be developed in the currently vacant space on top of the hall. Above that, a pair of new 12-story residential structures would be added to the building’s roof. Though such an addition could likely offend some preservationists, Architect Daniel Burnham did originally design the Beaux-Arts style station with a future vertical expansion in mind.

Phase two would redevelop the block immediately south of the station—a location primarily occupied by a multi-story parking structure. Under the plan, the unattractive garage would go away and be replaced by two new office towers delivering a combined 1.5 million square feet of rentable space. New landscaped terraces would overhang Union Station’s recently completed transit center. It was at this block that competing developer Sterling Bay had released its vision for a 2 million square foot, cheese grater-shaped supertall tower designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Sterling Bay’s unselected tower proposal for the Amtrak-owned parking garage just south of Union Station.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

To the immediate east, the third and final stage of the project would involve the construction of a new residential high-rise on top of existing train tracks. Zoning entitlements for the 500,000-square-foot tower will come from utilizing Amtrak’s unused air rights above the busy right-of-way. Building such a tower above active rail lines is nothing new for Riverside (or Goettsch for that matter) thanks to experience gained working on a similarly challenging site for the 150 N. Riverside project. The phase three high-rise is also expected to contain a retail component.

Greg Hinz of Crain’s was quick to point out that the announcement of a master redeveloper “does not guarantee” that any work will actually occur. Amtrak had been down this same road back in 2007 when it revealed plans for a $250-million tower addition above Union’s headhouse. The unrealized scheme would have included a 350 hotel rooms, six levels of condominiums, and over 500,000 square feet of office space anchored by the American Medical Association. With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that Chicago’s booming West Loop—as well as the general global economy—are in a very different place compared to ten years prior.

The newly revealed plan could evolve. It will be subject to community feedback and requires the blessing of the City of Chicago Plan Commission, Landmark Commission, Zoning Committee, and City Council to move forward as shown. That being said, approvals may go quickly considering the City of Chicago says it would like to see the project completed within the next six years. The Amtrak board is still finalizing financial negotiations with Riverside and its partners, but expects to have the deal wrapped up by the end of the year.