Hungry for the wolf
Vetting begins for highly anticipated, billion-dollar development at city's heart
06/06/2012 10:00 PM
Located at the confluence where the two branches of the Chicago River meet, the patch of land known as Wolf Point could be considered the last frontier for development in the city’s downtown area.
An early point of settlement for merchants and tavern-keepers in the city, the four-acre parcel has been the subject of numerous draft plans over past few decades, including cancelled proposals for sky-scraping rental apartments and commercial office space. But the lot’s long-time owners, the storied Kennedy family, have held off on building at Wolf Point, opting instead to let the site remain a parking lot while selling off and developing properties on the western and southern shores of the river.
But the gears of progress finally appear to be moving at Wolf Point. Last week, a development team partnered with Christopher Kennedy and architect César Pelli unveiled a new vision for
Following up on initial plans which first surfaced in 2007, designs for the project call for a 500-unit luxury rental apartment high-rise and two commercial towers, measuring up to 750 and 950 feet in height, to be built at the site.
The property is set to include significant green space around the base of the structures and a river walk that would begin at the Orleans Street bridge and extend along the perimeter of the site — all of which would rest atop an underground parking complex fit to accommodate nearly 1,300 cars.
Kennedy, who recently left his post as head of the Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., the firm that manages leasing and trade shows at the goliath commercial complex next door, noted that the newest iteration of the Wolf Point plan underwent nearly a decade of scrutiny.
“Every thoughtful architect has identified three buildings as the way to go,” he said.
The purpose of the trio design, he said, was to intended to avoid “having a big podium at the bottom” — a characteristic that Kennedy saw as perhaps a bit too common in the tradition of modern Chicago architecture.
“While it can create enormous projects, it really doesn’t do much for the human experience at the ground level,” said Kennedy, who is the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
If completed, the Wolf Point project — estimated to cost $1 billion — would include about as much interior space as the 3.75 million-square-foot Willis Towers.
Authored by a team led by Houston-based developer Hines and comprised of draftsmen from Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, BKL Architects and Wolff Landscape Architecture, the new design’s entrance into the city’s queue of impending developments was anything but quiet.
At the behest of Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), the firms recently held a public presentation of the Wolf Point proposal before a gathering of around 300 residents.
Among other details covered at the meeting, the team’s traffic study for the area came under scrutiny by Reilly, who promised a city-led review of projected auto congestion levels around the site.
After sitting in on the Wolf Point presentation, resident and community organizer Andrew Schaefer said he was somewhat disappointed by what he saw as “a pretty big gap” between the development group’s rhetoric and the plans for the site.
“It’s ultimately just a proposal to put three more large towers on the site, as would be done anywhere else in the city,” said Schaefer, who serves as development committee chair for the River North Residents Association, a neighborhood group that holds court over the area encompassing Wolf Point. “We don’t think that plan really reflects what’s become a pretty unique parcel of land for downtown Chicago.”
Schaefer said that neighbors had been hoping for a design that offered “some sort of distinctive piece of civic or cultural architecture” which would speak to both the historic significance and distinctive physical setting of Wolf Point.
“Imagine the Sydney Opera House sitting there,” he said.
Kennedy said he believed that the Wolf Point proposal achieved “a great public purpose.” While it wasn’t a museum or an orchestra venue, the future property would serve as an accessible place for young professionals to settle, thus growing the city’s appeal, he said.
“We need to bring more people to our city, so who is that going to be? Really the most mobile people are young people,” he said. “That’s a great civic purpose, which I’d have to say rivals anything else that has been suggested.”