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Old Post Office figures in mega downtown expansion plan

International Property Developers plans for old Chicago Post Office.

International Property Developers plans for the old Chicago Post Office.

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Developer Bill Davies has assembled a blue-chip team to work on his project involving the old Chicago Main Post Office at 433 W. Van Buren. Among those involved:

◆ Martin Mulryan, project manager and expert in infrastructure planning who has worked in the United Kingdom and the Middle East.

◆ Laurence Booth, principal at the Chicago architectural firm Booth Hansen.

◆ Alan Ritchie, principal of Phillip Johnson Alan Ritchie Architects in New York.

◆ Jack George, zoning attorney at Daley & George Ltd. Partner Michael Daley is a brother of ex-mayor Richard Daley.

◆ Engineering firms Thornton Tomasetti and Space Co. Inc.

◆ Stephen Friedman, president of SB Friedman & Co., consultant on tax-increment financing subsidies.

◆ Cushman & Wakefield Inc. real estate brokerage.

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Updated: July 22, 2011 9:13AM

The old Chicago Main Post Office, the giant that straddles Congress Parkway, could become the launching pad for a 20-acre development that aims to remake and expand the core of Chicago.

That’s the vision of Bill Davies, the secretive British investor who acquired the vacant post office, Chicago’s “incredible hulk,” in 2009 and since then has secured contracts on adjacent property. On Thursday, he laid out his ideas in a zoning application submitted to the city.

Just east of the landmark post office would go a building that divides itself into twin peaks rising about 120 stories, making them the tallest towers in the country. And that’s just a slice of the overall plan.

Davies proposes six other high-rises in the 60- to 80-story range for either residences or hotels. He wants retail and entertainment on a scale that would dwarf Mall of America, flanked by 12,000 parking spaces, most of them free and connected by “speed ramps” that allow drivers to zip directly to their destination.

Its raw numbers are hard to imagine. He would build more than 17 million square feet, about four times the space that Willis Tower contains. Davies projects the investment as $3.5 billion.

But it might never happen or, if it does, it’ll take a different form and be the work of another cast of investors, architects and engineers. Davies, who is in his 70s, is a successful property investor but has failed to execute developments of much less complexity overseas.

A resident of Monaco, Davies is a globe-trotter who reports satellite offices in Latvia, Liverpool, Barbados, Las Vegas and, soon, Chicago. He was not in Chicago Thursday but made associates available for interviews.

Far-sighted as it is, it’s still a proposal drawn from “conservative logic,” said Laurence Booth, principal of the architectural firm Booth Hansen and a designer of the plan. Davies, Booth said, “sees this site for what it is. It’s an opportunity in the middle of the city.”

What’s not in the plan is a casino, although the post office figures in any discussion about potential sites. The fate of legislation granting a Chicago license to Chicago is uncertain, but Martin Mulryan, Davies’ manager for the project, said his boss pursued the post office with no knowledge of the casino debate here.

“It is not part of the plan. If it becomes something that we should look at, we’ll determine if a casino is a good thing for the city and for us,” Mulryan said.

Davies in the past has “flipped” properties, selling for a presumed profit. But Mulryan said that isn’t his intent here. “He’s making plans for permanent roots in Chicago,” he said, adding that if the city approves the project’s zoning, Davies hopes to start construction on the first phase in 90 days.

The zoning application triggers a review by city departments that will take several months, culminating in a hearing before the Chicago Plan Commission. If the commission endorses the proposal, it would go to the City Council for a vote.

The old post office is within the 2nd Ward of Ald. Robert Fioretti, who said he’s had several talks with Davies about the project. Fioretti gave it a positive review pending the design’s airing before community groups.

“It’s bold, innovative. It’s reflective of the future of the city and it puts it in a global context,” Fioretti said.

“He’s got a real attachment to Chicago. He always says what a beautiful city it is,” Booth said.

In a statement, Davies, chairman of International Property Developers, challenged any naysayers, recalling those who said downtown projects such as a museum campus, Lakeshore East or Millennium Park couldn’t happen. “I would challenge any cynic to look at those developments and then tell me this can’t be done,” Davies said. “I am confident that with the correct focus and energy and by working in partnership with this great city, that we will achieve our goal.”

The first phase involves the sprawling post office itself, with its floors divided up for parking, retail and entertainment space, a hotel along the building’s northern end incorporating its ornate lobby, and another hotel of perhaps 60 stories along the Chicago River.

Davies and his team hope the beginning will expose people to the site’s potential and its access. Ramps would connect cars directly to Congress and the Eisenhower Expy., and the site also could get direct links to commuter rail service and the CTA Blue Line.

The key to the project’s success “will have to be the orchestration of it,” Booth said. “We know we have to make it a compelling destination.”

The post office has been empty since 1996. Many view it as blight, a two-block long blockade for southwestward expansion of the downtown.

The development includes property west of the post office that now has a Holiday Inn, and a vacant piece to the east near Harrison and Wells known as Franklin Point. Both properties are under contract and Davies has consent of the owners to request new zoning, said Jack George, the attorney advising him.

Later phases foresee more hotels, some 3.8 million square feet of high-rise homes and 2 million square feet of office space, each component being a sizable project in itself.

All of that will take financing and a much better economy, but George said the project is about long-term thinking.

“Don’t let the economic times depress your ideas,” he said.

The various components would be connected by a green roof that would become a 20-acre park above the bustle of city streets. An enhanced riverwalk also is part of the plan.

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