Mayor Rahm Emanuel is serious about getting Amazon’s attention. Like other big deals in recent years, Chicago’s mayor is using his consolidated power at City Hall to line up Chicago’s business, civic, and political leaders to organize a unified push to land Amazon’s second headquarters. Unlike recent civic deals such as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and the Obama Presidential Center which have ultimately dented Emanuel’s reputation, the mayor is looking forward to a deal with Amazon to redeem himself and push Chicago into the 21st century as a power player in the tech industry.
Shortly after Amazon announced its intentions to build a second headquarters, cities around the nation lined up for the chance to land the deal, which Amazon claims will ultimately produce 50,000 well-paying jobs and billions in new investment. There’s been a lot of discussion about Chicago’s odds of landing such a deal and where the headquarters would actually fit in Chicago. Just in the last few weeks, Chicago developers and architects have unveiled a number of master plans for high-profile development sites.
The timing of these unveilings isn’t coincidental. It’s clear that the city is showing its hand—although ever so slightly. Rahm, a mayor known for being a brash, hard-knuckled deal maker, doesn’t want the competition to know what Chicago is offering. And ultimately, it can be argued that the city doesn’t have a lot to lose either. For the last four years in a row, the Chicago metro area has led the nation in corporate expansions and relocation—a point that the mayor’s office has highlighted since beginning its conquest for Amazon.
Now that the picture is looking more lucid regarding prospective headquarter sites around Chicago, it’s a good time to take a step back to get a big picture perspective. Will Amazon choose Chicago for its second headquarters? It’s hard to say. But if Mayor Emanuel has anything to do with it, Bezos and company will have a tough time turning down what Chicago has to offer.
Chicago Tribune riverfront sites
After revealing plans to construct a four-building riverfront campus of loft offices and residential units on a 7-acre plot at 700 W. Chicago Avenue, Tribune Media has recently released its grand vision for its 30-acre Freedom Center parcel to the immediate south with the hopes of attracting Amazon. Known as ‘The River District,’ the joint 37-acre parcel would be a “city within a city,” supporting in excess of 10 million square feet of new mixed-use space and tens of thousands of jobs.
Located at the intersection of the neighborhoods of River North, River West, Goose Island, and Fulton River District, the Trib’s mega-project is a short walk from nearly all of the CTA’s major train lines and could include transportation improvements such as a new pedestrian bridge across the river and a transitway or shuttle route from Chicago’s big commuter rail stations. Despite calling for nearly two dozen structures, the plan sets aside a fair amount of open space and a riverwalk component.
The multi-phase project could potentially see Amazon start with the northern portion and then spread south of Chicago Avenue. In addition to some zoning challenges, the Tribune sites also must contend with the existing 800,000 square foot Freedom Center building. The printing facility has a lease through 2023 and includes two options to extend for another 10 years.
North Branch sites
Over the last few years, major industrial sites along the Chicago River’s North Branch have been changing hands. Despite protections put in place decades ago to help keep industrial jobs along the stretch of river, the city recently approved a sweeping zoning ordinance which will allow developers to build a variety of uses along the riverfront. One of the largest zoning changes in recent history, the approved plan reshapes the cluster of the Planned Manufacturing Districts (PMDs) that line the banks of the North Branch just north of Chicago’s central business district.
This is where developer Sterling Bay comes in. The group has built a name for itself by transforming Fulton Market from a legacy packaging and distribution hub to one of Chicago’s most prominent office markets. High profile tenants and partners include Google, SRAM, McDonald’s, and Ace Hotel, but Sterling Bay has shifted focus in recent months towards its growing collection of North Branch sites.
Last month, Sterling Bay finally unveiled its plans for its North Branch properties. Dubbed Lincoln Yards, the plan will transform the former A. Finkl & Sons steel plant and the city’s former Department of Fleet and Facility Management site into an ambitious megaproject could cost upwards of $10 billion and take a decade to complete. The site is being pitched as one of Chicago’s most prominent locations for a potential Amazon headquarters. And even if Amazon doesn’t bite, its combination of key location along the riverfront and planned transportation improvements will be able to lure another high-profile tenant to the campus.
Old Main Post Office
While it stood vacant for years, hundreds of construction workers are on site each day transforming Chicago’s Old Main Post Office. The upcoming development, simply titled The Post Office, is poised to be one of the most transformative office projects for Chicago. The renovation of the hulking 2.8 million square foot building is estimated to cost $600 million and will see not only the rejuvenation of the Art Deco behemoth, but it’ll also reshape the building’s prominent river frontage with the addition of outdoor cafes and a landscaped riverwalk.
Tenant amenities alone will occupy 80,000 square feet of space. The Post Office will not only feature numerous food and beverage offerings, but it’ll also feature what is likely to be the largest contiguous green roof deck in Chicago. Originally built in the 1930s to help serve Chicago’s mail order behemoths such as Sears and Montgomery Ward, the old Art Deco building will see a new life as a prominent office hub. While the completed project won’t fit all 50,000 employees that Amazon says it is looking to house, there’s going to be room for thousands of office workers at the Old Main Post Office.
Revealed earlier this year, the multi-phase redevelopment of downtown Chicago’s Union Station is arguably Amazon’s most centrally located and transit-rich option. The highly ambitious, mixed-use project from Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development Co. would vertically expand the station’s historic 1925 headhouse building as well as construct three additional high-rises atop nearby Amtrak-owned real estate.
While expected to deliver 3.1 million square feet of office, residential, hotel, and retail space, the project falls short of Amazon’s 8-million-square-foot future need and still requires the blessing of the City of Chicago Plan Commission, Landmark Commission, Zoning Committee, and City Council to move forward as shown. Union Station has been linked to a possible joint bid for HQ2 in collaboration with the 601W Companies’ adjacent Old Post Office property.
While master plans for sites along the North Branch and downtown have become more clear in recent weeks, one of the big unknowns was what exactly Related Midwest has planned for its 62-acre riverfront site in the South Loop. Titled “The 78,” Related Midwest claims that the upcoming development will become Chicago’s 78th community area when complete.
Expected to be one of the largest real estate developments in Windy City history, the $5 billion project will include at least 10 million square feet of residential and commercial space for the sprawling site.
Roughly 30 percent of the parcel is expected to remain green space—giving Amazon workers plenty of room to stretch out and relax during lunch breaks. A recently announced plan for a new innovation center at The 78 would certainly compliment Amazon’s presence.
Michael Reese Hospital site
Billed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to transform Chicago’s Near South Side, the planned redevelopment of the Bronzeville’s former Michael Reese Hospital provides Amazon with Lake Michigan views and plenty of room to spread out.
Vacant since 2009, the property was purchased by the City to serve as the Olympic village under Chicago’s unsuccessful bid for the 2016 summer games. In June, a multi-phase redevelopment plan was awarded to a team led by firms Draper & Kramer and Farpoint Development.
Initially expected to feature “more than 5 million square feet” of technology-oriented commercial spaces, retail, homes, and hotel rooms, the plan has been super-sized to include 8 million to 14 million square feet depending on tenant needs and overall market demand. High-tech touches such as fiber optic data connections, on-site renewable energy generation, and dedicated traffic lanes for autonomous vehicles are reportedly on tap.
While well-connected to Chicago’s highway network, the area does lack the mass transit options of some of its Windy City competitors. The possibility of a new 31st Street train station is reportedly on the table.
Cook County Hospital and Illinois Medical District (wild card)
Similar to the Old Main Post Office, the former Cook County Hospital building has stood vacant for years awaiting its redevelopment. However, unlike the Old Main Post Office which is finally undergoing a major overhaul costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the historic Cook County Hospital remains a missed opportunity. Since 2011, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has initiated a number of redevelopment plans for the enormous Beaux-Arts building.
The most recent, unveiled last year, would see the original Cook County Hospital building transformed into a mix of hotel rooms and mixed-income housing units. Following phases would add a series of new towers to the surrounding property, including room for new office space, hotel rooms, and market-rate housing. The total estimated cost of the privately-funded project ranges between $550 million and $700 million with a timeline of 10 and 15 years to complete.
James R. Thompson Center (wild card)
The Thompson Center represents one of the most prominent redevelopment opportunities in Chicago—one that could possibly lure a team of developers and corporate tenants with deep pockets to help with its eventual transformation. Governor Bruce Rauner has pitched the idea of selling the property to the highest bidder to allow for demolition of the existing structure and the construction of a new supertall skyscraper at the site, however, architect Helmut Jahn has countered the idea with his own conceptual plan for a new tower that will rise out of the existing atrium building.
The sale and possible redevelopment of the Thompson Center is problematic for a number of reasons, but the political back and forth between Springfield and Chicago lawmakers has almost all but ensured that no sale will take place in the foreseeable future. However, with Chicago’s push to land Amazon’s second headquarters, a redeveloped Thompson Center is a site that shouldn’t be written off. It checks off a number of boxes, including a central downtown location, excellent transit connectivity, and a place in Chicago’s architectural legacy.
- Which Chicago sites are the most likely candidates for Amazon’s HQ2? [Curbed Chicago]
- Could Chicago actually land Amazon’s second HQ? [Curbed Chicago]