Big new plans for Chicago’s old main post office
Bill Davies, the secretive British investor who wants to redevelop the old Chicago Main Post Office, is making a new bid for credibility with revised plans for the massive building that straddles Congress Parkway.
His latest proposal, which got its first airing at a community meeting Tuesday night, calls for making the federally landmarked building a mostly residential and parking complex and the centerpiece for surrounding hotel rooms, stores and offices.
Davies has hired Chicago architect Joseph Antunovich of Antunovich Associates to craft the plans for a first phase of 5.2 million square feet, more than what’s in Willis Tower. It would include a 1,000-foot-tall building east of the post office, and a later phase envisions a tower that would top Willis in height.
Antunovich said his version, downsized compared with another architect’s renderings two years ago, are designed to convince city officials to grant zoning entitlements. With that legal clearance, Davies then hopes to attract international investors, Antunovich said.
“This sets the canvas for a superior project,” he said. Asked about Davies’ ability of carry it off, he said, “He has interest from a number of investors in the first phase. It all becomes a matter of getting the entitlements from the city.”
Antunovich is at least the third architect Davies has hired for the project since he gained control of the property in 2009. City officials privately have expressed their impatience over Davies’ lack of progress with the vast post office, sometimes called Chicago’s “incredible hulk.”
An earlier plan nearly hid the building in a cluster of skyscrapers. Antunovich, however, has proposed adding floors to the post office, increasing the cavernous interior space that others proposed to partially raze.
The scale would suit a casino, should the state Legislature ever grant a license to Chicago. The building is big enough for all the parking, tables and slot machines a gambler could imagine, and it needs a huge anchor to draw people into what’s now a neglected quadrant of downtown.
Antunovich would say little about the prospect for a casino. Davies’ representatives in the past have said the project was not being designed with a casino in mind.
Ald. Daniel Solis (25th) said a casino makes sense for the site. The property is within the redrawn version of Solis’ ward and his support is crucial for the zoning change.
“I think a casino is a possibility because of all the public transportation that’s available at the site,” Solis said.
The post office, 433 W Van Buren, sits alongside the Chicago River and over Amtrak and Metra tracks. It’s a well-known landmark for travelers on the Eisenhower Expressway.
Solis said he has an open mind about the project and Davies, who has a mixed record as a property investor and developer in his native England. “I am impressed by the people he has surrounded himself with,” the alderman said. Davies could not be reached.
Antunovich has designed condo high-rises, but is also known for community planning and historic preservation, including his work on downtown’s Reliance Building. Others on the project include engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti and zoning attorney Jack George, onetime law partner of former Mayor Richard Daley’s brother.
A spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development, which handles zoning, declined to comment.
In broad outlines, the Davies plan calls for 2,900 rental housing units; 800,000 square feet for stores; 525,000 square feet of office space; 320 hotel rooms and 5,700 parking spaces, all in the first phase. Antunovich estimated the cost at $1.2 billion.
He said the property is well-situated to become a shopping hub. “The whole area is growing. It’s a great area. It is expanding all the way over to UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] and the medical center,” he said.
Antunovich added, “We believe we could become a neighborhood shopping destination for the people two, three, four miles all the way around us.”
Davies owns land west of the post office that includes a Holiday Inn. His proposal would replace the hotel with a parking garage in the first phase, with a high-rise being added later.
A third tower, potentially 2,000 feet tall, is in a later phase east of the post office and south of Congress.
The post office has been empty since 1996. With an impressive lobby and floors stretching two city blocks, it’s a monument to the days when Sears and Montgomery Ward made Chicago the mail-order capital of the country.