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New plans for $450M downtown office tower over railroad tracks on river

Site planned 53-story office building park west side Chicago River between Lake Randolph.  |  David Roeder~Sun-Times

Site of a planned 53-story office building and a park on the west side of the Chicago River between Lake and Randolph. | David Roeder~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 3, 2013 7:12AM

Developers and engineers with a background in high-rise deal-making and problem-solving have released plans for an office tower and a park covering an empty riverfront block downtown from Lake to Randolph streets.

The estimated $450 million project involves building over commuter railroad tracks that serve Union Station. The tracks, plus city-owned land that slices through the 2.5-acre parcel, pose complications that have kept the site near Boeing Co.’s headquarters vacant for more than 50 years.

John O’Donnell, principal of O’Donnell Investment Co., said his team has figured out how to add a 53-story building to the site while providing a public park and riverwalk. He said about 75 percent of the site will be landscaped and the building will be placed on the site’s northeast portion, improving views for tenants and preserving those of neighbors.

O’Donnell bought a portion of the site more than a year ago for $12.5 million and owns air rights to build over the tracks, which are the property of Amtrak. He has yet to finalize terms with the city over its portion. O’Donnell is requesting no public subsidy.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who has haggled with O’Donnell over the project for almost two years, was sufficiently satisfied with the latest redesign to allow O’Donnell to start showing it to community groups. The project’s first public review was Wednesday night, part of a road-show process the city asks of developers who need a zoning change for large-scale construction.

“We worked very hard here to create a sense of place, something very special,” O’Donnell said. He said that under a previous landowner, a zoning deal called for two residential high-rises on the property.

“I didn’t want to put two buildings there,” O’Donnell said. “I wanted it to be more open and to beautify something that frankly is a blight.”

He said work can proceed without disrupting train schedules. Once it’s finished, noise and pollution from the trains will be substantially reduced, O’Donnell said.

His message is aimed at residents of the 165 N. Canal condo building, which has balconies looking out onto the site. Its occupants have for years been concerned about losing sunlight and views because of new construction.

The plans would give them a park that slopes toward the water and covers a parking garage for 81 cars, a relatively small allotment that reflects the project’s emphasis on public transit.

Working with architectural firm Goettsch Partners, O’Donnell is touting a design that maximizes the distance between his building and the condo neighbors. It’s 122 feet, equivalent to the width of Wacker Drive or Michigan Avenue in separation, O’Donnell said. A representative of the condo building’s management declined to comment.

He said Goettsch produced “an elegant design” in response to the site’s challenges. It included a 100-foot-tall lobby, a glass façade with a rippled texture that’s supposed to mimic the river, and a tapered base. The building appears to stand on slender core supports.

When an interviewer suggested people might wonder how it stays up, O’Donnell smiled and replied, “That’s why I hired the best structural engineers in the world.”

Magnusson Klemencic Associates and Thornton Tomasetti Inc., which have worked on supertall buildings around the world, plan for supports driven 120 feet into the earth to support the structure.

But it also will need support from a strong downtown economy. O’Donnell said that even if the city grants zoning approval, he can’t start construction until he signs leases for about a quarter of the 1.2 million square feet.

For that task, he’s working with Drew Nieman, senior vice president of U.S. Equities Realty. The two men teamed for years at the John Buck Co. to build and fill new buildings downtown.

Nieman said the building’s design and surroundings will give it prestige appeal for the law, financial or consulting firms that often anchor such new projects. He said that while the building will command premium rents per square foot, incoming tenants will save money.

“The trend today is to fit more people in less space in workplaces. The space per employee has been shrinking by 20 to 35 percent,” he said.

The project is using the vanity address of 150 N. Riverside Plaza, which city officials have approved despite concerns in past years about emergency response. The regular street address is 400 W. Randolph.

O’Donnell said he hopes to start construction by mid-2014 and be open a couple years later. That would put him close on the heels of a new office building planned at 444 W. Lake, near the O’Donnell site.

The two competitors both would be near the spot where the Chicago River divides into branches. The long-term Wolf Point development site also is there, meaning the stretch could become a showplace for modern architecture and planning.

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