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Kamin: ‘Urban design stakes are high’ for Lakeshore East plan

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Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin weighs the good and bad of the new plan for Lakeshore East

bKL Architecture

The newly unveiled plan for four towers at Lakeshore East made a big splash in the world of architecture and real estate news in Chicago this week, but it’s far from the only mega-development currently in the works for the Windy City. The proposal, which would deliver over 2,000 new residences and nearly 1,000 new hotel rooms in the form of four new buildings—including one which would rise to 875 feet—to Lakeshore East, is a dramatic conclusion for the planned community that has been in the works for decades, but there’s still much more to discuss and to improve on, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin suggests in his most recent column.

bKL Architecture

In case you missed it, the new proposal from developer Magellan Group seeks to fill in the final holes at Lakeshore East with four new towers. All four buildings have been designed by bKL Architecture and Magellan is teaming up with the Australia-based Lendlease for three of the buildings. The proposal, which seeks a zoning change to build taller towers than originally planned, was unveiled earlier this week to a packed ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. In exchange for a bump in height, Magellan, Lendlease, and bKL have designed a plan which delivers large swaths of green space—134,340 square feet of total park space to be exact.

The quick takeaway is that Lakeshore East is getting some new, tall towers, including one that will rank in the top ten tallest for the city, a few new hotels, hundreds of new apartments, hundreds of condos, expanded pedway access, and a sprawling new park.

It all sounds great, right?

In his column, Kamin highlights a few key issues with the plan, specifically, the design and programming of the park space, the complete dismissal of affordable units and the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund, and the developer’s history of cozying up to (and lining the pockets of) the elected representatives who decide on zoning matters. However, Kamin also notes that the “urban design stakes are high” in regards to this plan, and that the final design and program “go far beyond the blocked views about which some Lakeshore East residents are fretting.”

It all sounds good until you closely examine the plans. More than 20 percent of the planned "open space," for example, would be closed to the public — a private enclave of swimming pools, cabanas and a fire pit. Much of the land that would be open to the public would consist of thin strips of trees and grass. And there would be no affordable housing.

During the question and answer segment of this week’s meeting at the Hyatt Regency, one of the first questions was focused on affordable housing and whether this project would feature any affordable units or if the developer opted out and decided to pay into the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund. Alderman Brendan Reilly’s response was that the Lakeshore East master plan predates the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance and therefore is not under its jurisdiction. So, there will be no affordable units on-site and there will be no payment into the city’s fund for affordable housing.

bKL Architecture

The resident that brought up affordable housing during the Q&A session for the new Lakeshore East plan concluded by asking Alderman Reilly to “make it happen.” The room filled with audible laughter and Reilly responded by saying, “I’ll see what I can do, but no promises.”

While Magellan has no plans to contribute to the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund, associates of the developer have paid tens of thousands of dollars into the campaign funds of Reilly and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Kamin highlights.

On one day alone last December, Reilly reported receiving 11 contributions totaling $55,400 tied to Magellan executives. Since 2011, Reilly has received 27 contributions linked to Magellan totaling $92,400, according to state campaign finance records. In addition, Mayor Rahm Emanuel listed $41,400 in contributions tied to Magellan last year, records show.

While the contributions are concerning, Kamin is cautious to make accusations. “I'm not suggesting that Magellan is buying the support of Reilly and Emanuel to build more of the bland, exposed-concrete high-rises with which the company blighted River North a decade ago,” he writes. “Actually, its new plan shapes up to be a plus for the skyline. But there's a lot more to this project than how it will look from the window of a car on Lake Shore Drive.”

There are also other issues with the planned park. Vivid renderings presented at the meeting depict a grand staircase and zig-zagging trail which leads residents from Lakeshore East to the lakefront. However, the plan falls short of practicality for those less able.

... the pathway itself, which would consist of a grand stairway and a parallel array of switchbacks for people in wheelchairs, needs to be revisited. Imagine a wheelchair-bound person at the bottom of those switchbacks. If you're going to provide wheelchair-accessible design, make it more than just a pretty picture.

However, it’s not all bad. Kamin applauds Magellan for transforming the area into a “lively enclave” and calls the planned 80-story tower for the northeastern corner of the community an “eye-grabber.” The plan’s tallest building has merit not only for its height, but also for its striking contemporary design.

Sheathed in silvery glass, with alternating stacks of balconies accentuating its sculptural identity, the tower promises to work as both a stand-alone object and a part of the cityscape. Like an exclamation point, it would culminate the wall-like row of towers along East Wacker.

The proposal is a big one. It’s a significant one that will not only reshape and complete Lakeshore East, but it’s one that will have an effect on the city’s recognizable skyline. “It's laudable when skyscrapers symbolize the vitality of the city,” Kamin concludes. “They also need to deliver that vitality on the ground — and they need to deliver it to the broader public, not just those who can afford to live in luxury towers.”