McCormick Place East: A casino royale?

May 25, 2011

Mayor Rahm Emanuel this week again expressed interest in the idea of a city-owned casino in Chicago.

If Chicago got a casino, where would it go? Nobody wants a gaming boat fouling the shoreline, so the casino would have to be land based; located in an area that's convenient to get, yet with no neighbors to disturb. It would have to be a very large building--otherwise, what's the point?--with parking and, frankly, secure and policeable. 

For my money, a city-owned casino should be McCormick Place's Lakeside Center, the 40-year-old modernist convention hall that its owner, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, says is under-used, headed toward obsolescence, needs a $150 million renovation and costs $10 million a year just to operate. It will bring a money-making use to the building that will allow it to maintain itself.  And at 580,000 square feet, the building is a bit undersized by convention standards, but would be among the largest casinos on the planet in terms of terms of sheer gaming space, placing it in league with the 546,000 sq ft of gaming halls at China's Venetian Macau--currently the world's largest. Its size could make this country's largest casino--Las Vegas' 170,000 ft MGM Grand--look like a few poker machines in the back of a bar in Lyons by comparison. Then there's Lakeside Center's Arie Crown Theater which can seat 4200 people--large enough to bring big acts to entertain that new audience.

The notion of turning Lakeside Center into a casino has been kicked around for years in City Hall.  Almost a decade ago, during my time working for the Mayor Richard M. Daley, I worked on investigating the physical--and thankfully not the political--aspects of putting a casino inside the big hall. A year ago, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) publicly discussed the idea of turning Lakeside into a temporary casino until a permanent one is found.

Indeed other uses have been proposed for the building. Earlier this year, the Chicago Architecture Club, AIA Chicago and Landmarks Illinois last month announced the winner of its 2011 Burnham Prize competition for reuse plans for Lakeside Center. The plan that won first place was wonderfully intriguing: to strip the hall to its structural skeleton and turning it into an "open-air, water-filled hypostyle hall" where people can swim and dock their boats. The Arie Crown would be a "theater whose roof is the sky glimpsed through the precise structural frame." It's the kind of big idea that Chicago needs to generate an execute. How the idea would work financially is worth examining.

I'm not arguing whether or not a casino is good for Chicago. And I should point out the opinion expressed here is mine and not that of the Chicago Central Area Committee, the organization that employs me. In other words, it's me talking. But if a casino is authorized, let it go to Lakeside Center.

A PERSONAL NOTE: Eric Werner, a respected and top-flight Chicago photographer died Saturday at 66. I knew Eric for 15 years and admired his work for even longer. We'd frequently run into each other at events around town; he'd work with such ease, taking some of the most evocative photos you'd ever want to see. Through his lens, the story of black Chicago was recorded with dignity, passion and grace. Check out his work here. He'll be missed.