Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slice of Life: The Pigeon Warming Center

Every winter there is a migration of television microwave trucks from the garages of channels 2, 5, 7, 9, and 32 to the City of Chicago's official warming center at 10 South Kedzie.  But what about the city's pigeons?  Where do they go when the weather outside turns frightful?

The answer is Daley Plaza.  Unnoticed by most of the millions of people who wander through the plaza during the city's frigid season, pigeons huddle around the gas-fed eternal flame.  It's a war memorial that our feathered friends use as a means of survival.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Fisher of Compliments

Chicago is one of those places where it pays to look up.  Sure, no one wants to look like a tourist, but at the same time many of the city's architectural delights aren't at eye-level.

Case in point: The Fisher Building.  This Chicago School masterpiece is loved by architecture enthusiasts around the world.  But unless you live in the building you may not have noticed that it's best face is actually hidden beneath the elevated tracks on Van Buren street.  The snowycam photo above simply doesn't do the relief justice.  The building's main entrance on Dearborn Street lacks the elaborate ornamentation.  Instead, it's saved for the dank, noisy side.

In a way, this makes sense.  At the time the Fisher Building was erected (1906) there was probably streetcar tracks running on Van Buren, and not the elevated structure we see today.  So the building actually did put its best face forward.  It's just that the world revolved away from it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

One Fewer Vacant Spaces at Water Tower Place

Getting around Water Tower Place has been pretty confusing this year.  Lord & Taylor's exit brought massive renovations, the American Girl Place,  and a big shuffle of many of the stores.  Things are starting to settle down now, and if you've browsed around the mall lately, you've noticed that the stores seem to be arranged in zones now.

There's a zone for cougar/soccer mom fashion stores, a zone for watches and jewelry stores, a zone for stores specializing in peddling prostitution wear to 12-year-olds, and even a zone for the occasional dad or boyfriend who gets dragged into the place.

One of the newcomers is a place we haven't heard of before until we saw a sign for it.  Aritzia is described by Michigan Avenue magazine as both "fashion forward" and "Canadian."  Take that for what it's worth, we'll welcome an import from Canuckistan if it means filling up a vacant space.

Good luck to them.

New Barney's building to open in January

While we're still in mourning over the loss of Papa Milano's, it's worth noting that its replacement is getting ready to open for business.

The new Barney's New York building bounded by Rush, Oak, State, and Walton streets is complete on the exterior, with the exception of the first-floor facade and sidewalks.  But around the corner on the State Street side, things are moving more quickly.

Citibank will relocate its Oak Street branch to the new building in January.  The Oak Street bank inside the historic (yet rat-infested) Esquire Theater will close on January 15 and re-open in the Barney's building on the 20th.

Does this mean things will move forward with the redevelopment of the Esquire?  Who can say.  So far, any development large enough to be economically viable has been shot down.  Hopefully some compromise will be reached before the building deteriorates enough that it needs to be torn down.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Spire Screwed Again

It just seems like everyone and everything is conspiring against the Chicago Spire .  What could be a treasure of modern architecture on the coast of Lake Michigan can't seem to get a break.

The latest hurdle is a big one -- the meltdown of Anglo-Irish Bank.  According to the Sun-Times , the bank is about to be nationalized by the Irish government.   That will make it tougher for Garrett Kelleher, the visionary who took over the Spire project, to get the money he needs to continue construction.

According to the Times, Kelleher has already withdrawn almost $70 million from the bank to get this far.  But the bank attached few strings to his spending.  With the bank in the hands of the Irish government, it's unlikely the new people holding the purse strings will be as generous as their predecessors.

At this point, when it comes to the Spire, everything is speculation. It's been like that pretty much since the beginning when Fordham made big plans, but couldn't follow through on them.

For now, all we can do is gaze into the foundation hole and dream of what may... or may not... come.

The Third Time is NOT the Charm for Donald Trump

Donald Trump has a permit for this morning to hoist the spire pieces to the top of his Trump International Hotel and Tower .  But with fierce winds and heavy rain, it looks like it's just not going to happen.  Again.
This is just the latest in a series of tries for The Donald.  A couple of weekends ago a sky crane actually flew with a piece of the spire attached to a cable:

But it was not to be.  Strong winds scuttled that attempt, too.

Today's permit expires at noon, and the weather is only expected to get worse by then.

He has a permit for tomorrow, Sunday December 28th, 2008, as well.  We'll see if mother nature is any kinder to him.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Progress Report:

There's something about walking around Chicago when it's snowing.  It just seems right.  In winter we like to walk in the snow.  In the summer, we like to walk down steamy alleys.  What gives?

Back on topic: the latest round of snowycam pictures shows the progress of the Hotel Palomar at 505 North State Street.  To us it looks like it's up to about the 17th story, and chugging along toward its goal of 36.

As much as we're fans of density in River North, it's a shame that the old park is gone.  Not many people used it, but it was nice to see a patch of green in the area, especially considering the number of surface parking lots just begging for vertical development.

Don't Forget To Do This Before Christmas!

There are lots of free Christmas events around Chicago. Our two favorites both involve trains.

We missed the CTA Santa Train this year because of scheduling conflicts.  But we did catch the annual train display in the basement... er... "concourse level" of the John Hancock Center.

If you haven't been, go.  It's free and it's an excuse to get out of the house.  And all the twinkly lights and nooks and crannies filled with surprises are enough to put just about anyone in the Christmas spirit.

You can also think of it as an architecture excursion -- in miniature.  Try to pick out all of the local landmarks and businesses represented.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What to do About the Unfinished Bit of Grant Park?

The city of Chicago's great "front lawn" has been a work in progress for over 100 years.  From swamp to dumping ground to parade ground to playground, it has long been a great urban space that the city almost... but not quite... figured out how to embrace.

The latest piece of this puzzle being worked on is the southwest corner.  We're talking about an are north of Roosevelt Road, and west of Columbus Drive.  Mostly what's there now is Illinois Central railroad tracks, a great big lawn, and a sprawling sculpture called Agora.

This area was actually zoned for a residential skyscraper.  But the owner, who is also the developer of Central Station, gave the land to the city to complete Grant Park's quadrangle.  Now the question is -- what to do with it?

The obvious answer is to deck over the railroad track and build another Disneyfied fantasy park like the one up at Randolph and Michigan Avenue.  But that means money.  And is it really the best use of that space?

(Jon Orlove of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture presents his firm's vision of what the park could be)

A public meeting was held last week to gather ideas about what the park should -- and shouldn't -- be.  Not surprisingly, the crowd was mostly elderly, and mostly interested in seeing the area used as a traditional park.  By "traditional" we mean wide lawns with occasional groves of trees.  They see it as the only natural use of a park, and the only way to bring nature in the city.

There were dissenters in the crowd, and one of them very astutely pointed out that there is absolutely nothing natural about lawns and manicured groves of trees.  In fact, the traditional park landscape is about as far from nature as one can get without actually laying asphalt.

Still, the notion persisted that this corner of Grant Park should be much like the rest of it -- open lawn with the occasional alley of trees.

This is a real shame, because the two firms that are working on the project presented some really imaginative proposals.  Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and EDAW|AECOM are the two finalists chosen to rehab the space.  They showed some magnificent examples of public spaces from Paris to Barcelona to Croatia.  They talked about ways to use rainwater to power fountains, plants to clean storm water runoff, solar cells to illuminate the walkways, and the power of human feet to generate electricity.  It's all very fascinating stuff.  The stated goal is to not just make the park energy neutral, but to actually have the park create more energy than it uses, and leave the surrounding air and water cleaner than it was before.

While it's nice to have a park as a showcase, the overwhelming sentiment on all sides is that this shouldn't be another Millennium Park.  Millennium Park has done great things for the city, its profile, and its finances.  But the new (Insert Corporate Sponsor Name Here) Park at the corner of Michigan and Roosevelt shouldn't be for tourists -- it should be for the locals.

To that end, there was lots of talk about bright, but subtle illumination at night that would draw people from the neighborhood into the park.  There was also a call for some kind of activity that would allow this to be a year-round park.  Maybe some kind of skating facility that would link to Monroe Harbor.  Or a sledding hill.  Or maybe a cafe or other property that would draw people in year-round.  Also seen as important is seating.  One jogger noted that there are virtually no places to sit south of Balbo Drive.

Everyone seemed appreciative of a slide showing the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris where 5,000 chairs are scattered throughout the park for people to re-arrange and enjoy at a whim.  Interestingly, though, the slides showed a very woodsy portion of the park.  We've been there, and it's mostly lawns and parade ground, and all those chairs are not very welcoming on a hot Gallic afternoon.

Speaking of Paris, and there was much speaking of Paris that night, there is apparently a park somewhere in the city that have the same problem as Grant Park -- a giant rail line cleaved through the middle.  That unnamed park found a solution -- the gravel rail beds have been replaced with a carpet of blooming flowers that change patterns during the summer.  Since the trains easily clear the plants, the two manage to coexist in a single space, and what was once an ugly scar has been turned into a floral work of art.  It's certainly compelling, especially considering Maggie Daley's fascination with flowers and the great job the city does with landscaping certain areas.  The idea was actually proposed by the same woman who designed Millennium Park's Lurie Garden.

Though the park plan is still in its early stages, expect progress to be rapid.  The goal is to have a plan ready to present to the International Olympic Committee when it comes to inspect our fair city in April, 2009.  Grant Park is a key to Chicago's proposed Olympic experience, and this corner is intended to be a gateway linking the Olympic village and sports venues with the spectator and event zones in Grant Park.

Progress Report: Mark 300 North LaSalle "Done"

It's been a long time coming, but it's finally time to mark 300 North LaSalle "done."  At least on the outside.

As evidenced by the construction lights visible across the city at night, the entire building won't be completed until some time in 2009.  But with the removal of the exterior elevator and the installation of the final glass panes on the northwest side.  The snowy-day picture above doesn't do it justice.  We can't wait for the first warm blue-sky day so we can go out and take a batch of stunning photographs of this one.

From a distance, it does a good job of working with its neighbors.  But because so many of its immediate neighbors are small it stands out, without overwhelming the area.

So kudos to Hines and Pickard Chilton Associates on a building well done.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

One Hines Done, Another Hines May Not Happen

If you've scanned the Chicago skyline lately, you've probably noticed that the Hines tower at 300 North LaSalle is pretty close to done.  Just about.  Almost.  But another Hines project a few blocks away at 414 West Lake is in jeopardy.

For months we though that the big shiny tower that Hines was planning to build along the Amtrak tracks next to the Riverbend Condominiums was cancelled.  Now we learn from Crain's Chicago Business that it's not dead, it's just pining for the fjords.

The article says that Hines is having a hard time getting banks to lend it the half-billion dollars is needs to make the 52-story project a reality, even though it already has two anchor tenants lined up.

Of course, in these tough economic times banks are reluctant to lend money to anyone, so it's not necessarily Hines' fault.  But it does illustrate why America is falling farther and farther behind in the skyscraper race.  In pretty much every country in Asia and the Middle East, if you have a big company and want to build a skyscraper, you go out and build it, paying for it up front and reaping the rewards on the back end.

In America and Europe, companies borrow money to build skyscrapers, build them with someone else's money, then hope to make enough money on the back end to pay off the debt plus interest.   So in essence, the developer (Hines, or whomever) hasn't built a skyscraper -- the bank has.  But the developer takes the credit.

It's that kind of deeply engrained house of cards mentality that caused the current economic crisis.  There's a mantra in American real estate which states, "Never build with your money, you build with someone else's."  Such a thought shows that these companies have no pride in what they're doing, or faith that their projects will work since they just shift the risk onto the bank.  It would be unthinkable to do such a thing in other cultures that value personal responsibility.

If your company doesn't have the money to build a skyscraper, then it's not all that big a company, is it?  All those brochures with pictures of shiny buildings -- they all belong to someone else, don't they?  So, what's the point of having your company at all?  Why not just deal with the banks?  Well, that's the way it seems to be going once again.

In the 40's and 50's and 60's, it was banks and insurance companies that built skyscrapers (the John Hancock Center , for example).  Then it went to developers.  Now the banks are getting back into the game -- cutting out the middle man.

That's why in ten years the ten tallest buildings in the world are not going to be in America.  But real estate people will keep telling themselves that it's better to build with someone else's money.

How's that working out for you, Hines?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

River North gets a new tower, and a new park

In these days when skyscrapers from Denver to Dubai are hitting the skids, it's worth noting when something new actually moves forward.

According to the River North Residents Association, developers have actually managed to get financing to build the Parc Huron.  This will be built at 469 West Huron in the booming area known for the Grand Kingsbury, Erie on the Park, and hundreds of new townhomes.

It's been amazing over the last five years to watch the area transform itself from warehouses and vacant lots into a thriving residential neighborhood.  With the addition of the 21-story Parc Huron comes four more townhomes, and more importantly a 15,000 square foot semi-public park.   After the fiasco with the Park at Lakeshore East we're skeptical about any of these quasi-public parks, but at the same time any greenspace in the Loop or Near North Side is welcome.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sure, we're City of the Year -- but for what?

The magazine formerly known as Gentlemen's Quarterly has named Chicago its 2008 "City of the Year."  Sure, anyone from the hot dog vendors at Sox Park to the ballcap-and-sweatshirt crowd in Lakeview could have told you that.  But GQ's reasons are intriguing because they're both insider, and wildly superficial.

The article focuses immediately on politics, and of course the city's mostly benevolent dictator, Richard M. Daley.  It then moves on to perpetual insider, and now Obama-maker David Axelrod, the Rove of the moment.  But then it derails by picking Jesse Jackson Junior as a reason Chicago is good.  Umm...  Excuse us?  The article notes that he's come out of his father's shadow, and while that's true the only way he made that happen is to adopt many policies that run in direct opposition to his father's legacy.  The elder Jackson wasn't afraid to stand up to the elder Daily.  These days when Hizzonor says, "jump" Junior says, "how high?"  Jesse Jackson can call up WGN-TV and demand to be on the News at Nine whenever he wants (and he does).  If Junior tried to pull that stunt, he'd get laughed at.

Fortunately, the GQ article goes way beyond politics and gives literature as the number three reason the city is so great.  Good for GQ.  A lot of people don't realize that Chicago's literary heyday is not in its past, but in its future.  With the recent death of Studs Terkel a lot of people saw it as the figurative, and literal, nail the coffin of great Chicago writing.  But GQ notes that there are many talented writers still slogging through the gritty streets of the city with rumpled suits and a wad of notebook paper.  Though, these days they've traded their mac coats for Mac computers.  Still, in this age when even Tony Bennett has sold out to the MTV crowd, the pleasures of crisp book have the power to seduce.

And then there's the architecture.  While Chicago was the home of the world's first skyscraper (much to the chagrin of New Yorkers) , and has been a trend-setter from art moderne to Meisian International to 90's McScrapers, and now into the wild blue postmodern, all GQ could find to talk about is the Spire.

Ah, yes, The Chicago Spire -- the hopes of a new generation of architecture fans wrapped up in a shining baguette of technology.  Don't get me wrong -- we're huge fans of the Spire around here.  But GQ's choice of it as a symbol of the city's greatness does Chicago a disservice since anyone who's been following the project knows that it's on hold.  Now thousands of people who see it featured in the glossy pages between impossibly-breasted supermodels and impossibly-sculpted shaving ads will do a quick Google and learn that Chicago isn't everything the article promised.  That the ancestral land of wild onions has its flaws, too.  And that if the article is wrong about the Spire, then what else is it wrong about?  Suddenly all that hard work and goodwill is tarnished, and an opportunity to raise the city's domestic profile is wasted.