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City Hall wants to relax rules on riverfront signage to woo Salesforce to Wolf Point

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The original regulations were adopted in response to Trump Tower’s oversized sign

The Salesforce logo as it appears on San Francisco’s recently completed Saleforce Tower.

On Thursday, Chicago City Council introduced a new ordinance governing the size exterior signage on high-rise buildings, relaxing strict limits adopted in 2014 in response to Trump Tower’s hugely unpopular exterior lettering. The change, City Hall hopes, will clear a path for San Francisco-based Salesforce to sign a large lease in Wolf Point’s unbuilt south tower and bring an estimated 5,000 new jobs to Chicago.

While the proposed rules still prohibit companies from building the kind of massive sign that hangs on Trump Tower, it allows 200-square-foot signs mounted between 150 and 199 feet off the ground. The permissible surface area gradually increases at higher altitudes, maxing out at 1,100 square feet if the logo is perched at least 800 feet in the air. By comparison, Trump’s sign is nearly 2,900 square feet in size.

“The adjustment would accommodate a Fortune 500 company that will soon create thousands of jobs in Chicago,” said mayoral spokesman Adam Collins—opting not to mention Salesforce specifically by name—in a statement first reported by Crain’s. The company was also seeking city permission for an exterior river-facing video screen, based on earlier reports.

City of Chicago

The software and cloud computing giant is eyeing a 500,000-square-foot office lease in Wolf Point South, designed by architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli. The downtown tower will be the third and final phase of the three-building Wolf Point megaproject under construction at the confluence of the Chicago River’s north, south, and main branches.

Wolf Point’s south tower is zoned to rise 950 feet, but Greg Van Schaack, a managing director at project developer Hines Interest, told the Tribune on Wednesday that the upcoming office building is likely to be about 800 feet—or about 60 stories—tall. Earlier descriptions of Wolf Point South hinted at a mixed-use building with office, hotel, and residential components. It is unclear if that is still the case.

The development team of Hines and Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises is currently working on the neighboring Wolf Point East apartment building. That 660-foot, 698-unit rental project is now just a handful of floors above street level and is expected to open in late 2019. The 485-foot residential Wolf Point West tower opened its doors in 2016.

A rendering of Wolf Point West (left), Wolf Point South (center), and Wolf Point East (center right).
Rendering by Steelblue

Salesforce will consolidate its existing River North workforce in the new building. The firm was also considering space in a new office tower proposed for 444 N. Dearborn Street as an alternative, according to reports.

In addition to permitting much larger signs on higher floors, the revised city ordinance will also relax the occupancy requirements that companies need to meet in order to add their exterior logos. Previous rules required a firm to occupy at least 51 percent of a building’s leasable space before it could tack-on its sign. The revised ordinance lowers the threshold to 350,000 square feet or 1,000 employees.

The move could open the door for other high-profile projects to add prominent signage along the Chicago River. For example, Bank of America and its 500,000 square feet lease in the upcoming 1.4 million-square-foot tower at 110 N. Wacker would be eligible for substantial exterior branding under the new rules.

The addition of signed the size of Trump Tower’s nearly 2,900-square-foot exterior letting would still be prohibited under the new rules.

“We know that a company’s ability to advertise its presence can be a big factor in its decision to locate in a specific building, or even within a specific city, so it’s important for Chicago to keep its regulations consistent with the market—without unduly cluttering the business card that is our skyline,” said David Reifman, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, in a separate statement on Wednesday.

While the economic benefits of the Salesforce lease are undeniable, not everyone is on board with reversing protections put in place to preserve the beauty and integrity of the Chicago River and its popular public riverwalk. In an August column, Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin urged Mayor Emanuel to stiffen his “urban design spine” and remain firm on his original signage regulations.

“Cynics said the ordinance, which strictly regulates the size, placement and materials of signs, was politically motivated and accused you of taking a cheap shot at Donald Trump,” wrote Kamin in his editorial to Emanuel. “Now you have a chance to prove them wrong—and do right for the riverwalk.”