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Developers unveil plan to build hotel, apartments atop Chicago’s Union Station

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The 1925 landmark would receive a seven-story glass and metal addition

Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Chicago’s landmarked Union Station is poised to receive a glassy, seven-story vertical addition as part of an ambitious multiphase redevelopment of the historic train depot and adjacent Amtrak-owned property.

The latest version of the plan was revealed Monday night at a public meeting held in the station’s restored Burlington Room. It would add 330 hotel rooms to the structure’s existing top floors plus roughly 400 rental apartments in a doughnut-shaped expansion designed by architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB).

A previous 2017 design by Goettsch Partners showed a pair of stand-alone towers crowning the station’s main building or “head house.” The earlier conceptual rendering was released after a joint venture of Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties was selected by Amtrak to master develop the site.

Chicago’s Union Station was originally designed by architect Daniel Burnham and engineered to accommodate a vertical expansion. Part of his design, resembling a massive limestone pedestal, was completed by architecture firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White in 1925. Burnham’s sketches for the building’s addition were never fully realized as the architect died before the building was finished.

A drawing of Union Station’s original office tower expansion. The demolished concourse building can be seen in the foreground.
J. D’Esposito, Union Station Co., and Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, Architects/Courtesy of Official Reference Book, Chicago Press Club

When the building was selected as a landmark in 2002, the designation called for a future expansion to be “compatibly designed but differentiated” from the station’s Beaux Arts exterior.

Although shorter than Burnham’s plans for a 315-foot tower, SCB’s design follows a similar ring-shaped layout around a central lightwell above the station’s expansive Great Hall skylight.

Taking the “compatible but different” approach to heart, the new section will be clad in glass and a light bronze metal inspired by the color of the building’s original window trim and the muscular steel trusses of the station’s demolished concourse building.

The design marks the line between old and new with a recessed gap. Above that, the addition cantilevers outward to make the narrow floorplates slightly wider and therefore better suited for apartments.

The project will create new entrances on Adams Street, Jackson Boulevard, and Clinton Street as well as restore windows destroyed and blocked-out after a 1980 fire. The existing headhouse windows will be upgraded with new glass to match the new structure above and accented with exterior lighting.

To say that the proposed addition has received a mixed reception would be an understatement. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin described the design as “banal,” “top-heavy,” and as if “one era of architecture had been piled, willy-nilly, atop another.”

At Monday’s meeting, Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago—a nonprofit group that included Union Station on its 2018 list of the city’s most endangered buildings—brought up concerns over the project’s “incompatible” design.

“Rooflines, elevations, and interior volumes are protected under the landmark ordinance and we think you’re going to step over these lines,” Miller said. “We’d like to see no building on top of this amazing station.” Miller instead suggested transferring the additional floors to the new high-rise buildings proposed next door.

Fred Ash, author of Chicago Union Station, offered a different take on the plan: “This building was a white elephant from the day it was built. It was over budget and built at the peak of rail travel. It was a financial disaster from day one and is an unproductive asset for Amtrak, who loses $1 billion a year. I think that continuing forward without some kind of redevelopment is unrealistic.”

Amtrak later disputed Ash’s claim that it loses $1 billion per year. A representative from the company said Amtrak covered roughly 95 percent of its 2017 operating costs with ticket sales and other revenues, but would not provide specific numbers regarding annual losses.

SCB

Alderman Brendan Reilly emphasized that Monday’s meeting represents the beginning of the approval process and reaffirmed his commitment to use the development to address traffic issues. Solutions being considered include the realignment of lanes, improved pedestrian crossings, dedicated drop-off areas for ride-hailing services, a move to limit westbound turns on Quincy Street, and the stationing of permanent traffic control aides.

During the meeting, the development team offered a few details regarding the project’s second phase—an office high-rise slated to replace the 1,700-stall parking garage just south of the station.

The yet-to-be-revealed design will deliver roughly 1.5 million square feet of office space and 800 parking spaces. Before construction begins though, the team will need to reengage the city and restart the zoning process.

If approvals move forward as planned, the developers hope to break ground on the headhouse expansion in the second quarter of 2019 ahead of an 18-month construction period. The phase two office tower could follow in late 2019, “at the earliest,” said Riverside’s John O’Donnell.

SCB

Union Station

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