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Work to redevelop old Chicago Post Office could start in September

View toward southwest shows renovated downtown post office with residential hotel tower foreground. A multi-level deck would be built over

View toward the southwest shows a renovated downtown post office with a residential and hotel tower in the foreground. A multi-level deck would be built over Congress Parkway, with access to the Chicago River. Courtesy Antunovich Associates

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Updated: August 20, 2013 6:35AM



City planners on Thursday approved a redevelopment for the old Chicago Main Post Office as agents for the British investor behind the project said work could begin in September.

The federally landmarked building that spans Congress Parkway would become the centerpiece of a long-term reimagining of a new neighborhood near the Loop. The first phase alone might take eight to 10 years to complete, said Joseph Antunovich, the architect for the project.

In a later phase, a tower that could vie for the “world’s tallest” title could arise next to the post office. But that is acknowledged to be perhaps 20 years away, and aides to the developer, Bill Davies, emphasized their plans to pursue the massive project in chunks that will appeal to financiers and eventual users of the space.

A casino is not in the plans, although the site has been mentioned whenever a potential Chicago license comes up. Charles Hubbard, representing Davies’ International Property Developers North America Inc., said a casino is not essential to the project.

“If there’s a legal ability to have a casino, there’s a possibility of having the space there,” he said. But he added that in the meantime, no casino has been included in appraisals of the property.

Hubbard said financiers are interested in the project and that retailers will move into the vast old building, “as long as they can see the overall master plan, and what an exciting plan it is.”

Initial work would begin turning the old post office, at 2.7 million square feet, into residential use, with up to 2,150 units planned. Lower floors would get retail space close to the size of Water Tower Place and parking.

The first phase, estimated to cost $1.5 billion, also foresees a 1,000-foot-tall tower on the old building’s northeast side. The tower would hold residences and perhaps a hotel.

The Chicago Plan Commission unanimously endorsed the proposal. Its recommendation goes to the City Council for final action.

“What makes this project feasible is that it is phaseable as we go along,” Antunovich said.Hubbard said first-phase work on the old building, which has been vacant since 1996, could start in September and that units could be ready for occupancy 18 months later.

The post office, 433 W. Van Buren, opened in 1921 and by the time a major expansion was completed in 1932, it was the largest building in the world, suited for spreading mail to the expanding western United States. It was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the Daniel Burnham successor firm that also created Union Station, the Wrigley Building and the Merchandise Mart.

A grand, soaring lobby is among the post office’s distinguishing features. The Davies-Antunovich plan calls for converting the building’s old office space on its Van Buren and Harrison street sides into residences while attracting stores and other commercial operations, such as theaters, into the vast interior space where the mail used to be processed and sorted. The postal service moved to a new facility just south of the building.

Hubbard said the design of the old post office fits with the developer’s need to phase the project. The new plan replaces one Davies floated two years ago that was even more grandiose, imagining six high-rises around the old building. It was quickly dismissed as unworkable.

The downsized version provides three adjoining towers in total and about 10 million square feet, or more than what’s in two Willis Towers. Hubbard guessed the cost at $4 billion.

But he said getting the city’s zoning approval and having a workable plan is the key to making a start. Global financiers, he said, “have told us, ‘When you get your zoning entitlement, come back to us, we’re very interested.”

Asked if Davies, who is elderly, intends to sell his interest in the property, Hubbard said, “It’s got to involve other investors and some of those investors may be co-developers.”

Antunovich, an architect of condo high-rises who also has expertise in community planning and renovations of historic buildings, noted that the site is a natural for intense urban use. Congress Parkway runs right through the building as its feeds into the Eisenhower Expressway, the Blue Line and commuter rail tracks run beneath it and the property has river frontage.

Residents could “live, shop, exercise, perhaps go to the movies in the building. You don’t really have to leave but you could get on a train and go to work at any one of the sprawling suburbs here in Chicago and yet live here downtown. I think the possibilities are truly endless,” Antunovich said.

The first phase calls for construction of about 4.5 million square feet, including the residential and hotel tower and a six-level deck on the building’s eastern side. The deck would allow for passage over Congress Parkway and would form a base of parking floors for an envisioned second-phase tower that could hit enter the ranking of world’s tallest buildings. In a final phase, a tower could be built west of the post office.



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