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Casino would improve odds for makeover of old post office

The old Chicago MaPost Office. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times library

The old Chicago Main Post Office. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times library

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Updated: March 2, 2013 7:22AM

It’s been a year and a half since British investor Bill Davies unveiled massive plans for the old and unused Chicago Main Post Office that spans Congress Parkway. His proposal was fanciful and to many outlandish. Davies imagined a thicket of high-rises around and on top of the old building.

Nothing has happened with the property since, but now he’s entered a new phase in his planning. Sources tell me it’s downsized, more practical and seriously considers the option of a casino.

Davies has a new architect for the site. It’s Joseph Antunovich of the firm Antunovich Associates, which has received substantial praise for its work around town. Antunovich has designed condo high-rises, but he’s also known for skills in community planning and for preserving old structures, such as his work on downtown’s Reliance Building.

He could not be reached for comment. Sources said his hiring is part of Davies’ push to get a proposal before city planners in a few months, with a casino as a possible lure.

Antunovich succeeds architect Laurence Booth, who in 2011 drew up Davies’ vision of a new downtown core on 20 acres surrounding the post office. “When we were working on it, a casino was talked about. You can fit one in that building pretty easily,” Booth said. “I’m sure that a casino can make sense there.”

Booth, principal of the firm Booth Hansen, said Davies’ problem was that “he never seemed to have a strategy that offered the chance of real success.”

A casino could be the anchor the project needs. The post office, Chicago’s “incredible hulk,” is 2.5 million square feet that can accommodate parking, hotel rooms, restaurants, expanses of slot machines and anything else a casino needs.

Jack George, the attorney for Davies handling zoning matters, said he is unaware of plans involving a casino. But he said Antunovich has produced “a number of good ideas” for the property, including a new approach for the building’s eastern end, which faces downtown.

Ald. Robert Fioretti, whose 2nd Ward included the post office before the city’s recent redrawing of ward maps, said he last met with Davies in December. He said the developer is considering a more modest approach to the building that could suit a casino. It could be similar to a plan offered years ago to remove some of the post office’s floors that cross Congress but leave the rest as ballroom-style space. It came from the offices of developer and gambling tycoon Neil Bluhm.

“I think this is one of the practical sites for a casino in terms of transportation, parking and train station access,” Fioretti said.

Nothing can happen, however, unless the state Legislature grants Chicago a casino license. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for it and wants to set aside casino revenue for school construction and modernization.

A spokesman for the mayor said Tuesday that discussions about a casino location are premature because the legislation has to come first.

CONDO RECOVERY? While statistics point to early signs of improvement in the local housing market, something has been overlooked in the numbers. It’s the influence that sales of attached homes — condos and townhouses — have in the market gain.

The RE/MAX firm looked at data from the multiple listing service and found that condo sales are especially strong, with average prices rising and distressed inventory and days on the market declining. In Cook County during December, sales of attached homes rose 24 percent from the same period a year earlier, to 1,881 units, and the median sales price jumped 12 percent to $140,000, RE/MAX said. Those figures beat the gains shown in Cook County for all home sales, attached and single-family.

RAHM’S MULLIGAN: The preservationists can count one victory in the fight to save the former Prentice Women’s Hospital in Streeterville. They got City Hall to concede it was wrong with its rushed, two-votes-in-a-day process last November in which the Commission on Chicago Landmarks at first said the building merited landmark consideration, then a few hours later voted against giving it. The commission has agreed to redo that second vote Feb. 7.

The city’s landmarks ordinance sets up a process that normally requires a separate hearing. Cook County Judge Neil Cohen, ruling on a lawsuit by the preservationists, had harsh words for the procedure Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration followed, calling it “arbitrary and non-transparent.” The judge would not overturn the commission’s decision, saying he had no power to do so.

With its do-over, the commission eliminates grounds for an appeal. Its decision is expected to be the same, as the mayoral-appointed panel seems in no mood to defy Emanuel, who wants Prentice to make way for an economic development project in the form of medical research labs.

ON THE MOVE: Lemont-based Englewood Construction, a commercial general contractor, hired Michael Podgorny, 58, as director of construction. Podgorny comes to the firm from Crane Construction in Northbrook and brings a substantial client base that includes major hotel chains and retailers. He has worked for Hyatt and Fairmont hotels, Crate & Barrel and the Levy Organization, among many others.

David Roeder reports on real estate at 6:22 p.m. Thursdays on WBBM-AM (780) and WBBM-FM (105.9). The reports are repeated at 10:22 p.m. Thursday and 7:22 a.m. Sunday.

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