The next supertall building in Chicago

Supertall construction has sputtered. Could egos and economics once again conspire to build something on the scale of the Willis Tower?

August 26, 2013

If you want to see evidence of the recession’s impact on skyscraper construction, you don’t need to pore over spreadsheets or the architectural billings index.

You just need to go to 400 N. Lake Shore Dr., where you’ll find a pit about 100 ft. wide and 80 ft. deep. The ill-fated Chicago Spire was supposed to be the tallest building in the western hemisphere. But the twisting 2,000-foot tower failed to attract enough financing and was hit with foreclosure lawsuits. Now it’s the most-watched hole in the ground in Chicago real estate.

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Listen to our conversation about supertall skyscrapers on The Afternoon Shift:

In June real estate developer Related Cos. of New York reportedly entered talks to buy the Spire's discounted debt. A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment “as it is currently the subject of litigation.”

One-time Chicagoan and curious citizen Andrew Wambach remembers the excitement surrounding the Spire.

“One of the things I loved about Chicago was its iconic skyline,” said Wambach, 28, who moved to Minnesota in April. “In Minneapolis we have about three towers and that’s it!”

So he asked us:

When will Chicago get its next super tall skyscraper?

Massive developments are difficult to design and build. But when they do happen, it’s generally because two important factors came together to make building up pay off: egos and economics.

But first, just how tall is that?

Andrew didn’t know this when he asked the question, but “supertall” is an objective term. Chicago’s own Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat is the authority on such matters. They deem any building over 300 meters, or 984 feet, “supertall.” Six buildings in Chicago qualify: The Trump Tower, Willis Tower, Aon Center, John Hancock Center, AT&T Corporate Center, and Two Prudential Plaza.

Walk into any major architectural office and you’ll see plenty of renderings pinned to the wall, showing buildings reaching great heights. They’re just in Jeddah, Seoul, Abu Dhabi, Beijing — not Chicago.

In 2011 CTBUH even had to add a new category of tall building to reflect the explosive growth of tall buildings in recent years. So-called “megatall” buildings stand at least 600 meters (1,968 feet) tall. There are only two complete megatall buildings: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and the Royal Hotel Clock Tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Construction topped out this month on the Shanghai Tower, 632 meters (2,074 feet) tall.

A likely candidate?

“If there was a great location, a great site, a developer that really had the willpower to pull something off, it certainly could happen,” said Rafael Carreira, a principal with The John Buck Company. “But the larger a project gets, the harder it is to finance, the harder it is to pre-sell or premarket ... and those are factors that make these supertalls hard to do.”

In July City Council approved the first part of an audacious redevelopment plan for the massive Old Main Post Office downtown, which has loomed vacant over the Eisenhower Expressway since 1996. The plans come from British developer Bill Davies’ International Property Developers and local architects Antunovich Associates. They call first for a rehab of the existing 2.7 million square foot post office and the construction of a 1,000-foot tower, to be followed in a later phase by a 2,000-foot tower that would be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.

The first phase could take eight to 10 years, Joe Antunovich said, while the rest might take 20 years. But first they need to secure financing. The entire project could cost $4 billion. It would be an impressive feat, to be sure. But in that amount of time, Shanghai’s Pudong district went from mainly farmland to a part of a metropolis with more skyscrapers than New York City.

Why the action is outside Chicago

There are a few factors behind Asia’s building boom that don’t quite apply to Chicago. For one thing, said CTBUH Executive Director Antony Wood, Chicago just doesn’t need to make a statement with its skyline like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia did when its Petronas Towers unseated Willis Tower as the world’s tallest in 1998.

“What’s driving these tall buildings around the world is attention in a global market and population growth,” Wood said. “And, on the face of it, we’re not seeing any of that in Chicago.”

The world gains more than 5 million city dwellers every month, and the U.S. accounts for very little of that urbanization. It’s happening in places like China, where a government plan to move 250 million people into cities by 2025 helps generate huge demand for high-density, supertall buildings.

But even if Chicago isn’t home to many new supertalls, it’s still a nerve center of sorts for tall building architecture and engineering.

“There’s not many really significant tall buildings that are not happening with some Chicago expertise anywhere in the world — architectural, engineering, geotechnical, fa├žade — but some Chicago input,” Wood said. “However it is fair to say that there has been a major shift in almost all aspects of tall buildings.”

In addition to moving to Asia, supertall towers have changed since Chicago’s skyline rose decades ago. Tall towers today tend to have more retail and residential space than their counterparts from previous generations. They are often mixed-use — combining hotel, retail, office and/or residential space in one building — and use different structural systems, like concrete-steel composites as opposed to just steel. And rather than bearing corporate names such as Chrysler, Sears and Petronas, they’re increasingly named to inspire civic pride: Russia Tower, Chicago Spire; Burj Khalifa was originally called Burj Dubai.

Brian Lee, a design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — the architectural offices behind thousands of skyscrapers around the world, including four of Chicago’s six supertalls — has seen the effect of these projects first-hand.

“We think that the tall building is not the only kind of building type that should be built, obviously. It has limitations,” Lee said, “but there’s something exhilarating about a tall structure that makes a mark for a city and a region.”

Our prospects

“Would we be interested? Absolutely … I think Chicago could stand to have another tall building,” Lee said. “It’s composed of multiple centers, so there’s many good sites for a tall building that would work.”

The demographic shifts driving the market globally (population growth and urbanization) do exist in the U.S., but on a different scale. Downtown occupancy rates have risen in recent years as people begin to move back to the city center. And for Lee Chicago represents something less tangible, too.

“The spirit of can-do here, and the real appreciation of architecture as being an accomplishment of generations of people that live in Chicago, is very strong,” he said. “So I think that it’s a very beautiful place that can accommodate tall buildings. There’s a natural balance between the built environment and the natural environment.”

Still, it might not generate enough demand for developers to take the risk on a massive building.

“I might be as bold to say we will never see the world’s tallest here again,” Wood said. “But I would not be as bold to say that we won’t see a supertall building here again.”

For our questioner, Andrew Wambach, that might not be so bad.

“Maybe the supertall is done and Chicago doesn’t need it anymore. They can say ‘been there, done that. We can be a great city without a supertall structure by the resilience of our neighborhoods, our restaurants, our culture,’” he said, but “if tomorrow they announced the Spire site was going to be the next supertall, I would do a little jump at my job. It would be exciting.”

Andrew raised another interesting question: If skyscrapers are a statement of their city’s character, what should influence the design of Chicago’s next supertall if it actually comes to be?

New skyscrapers at Wolf Point, River Point and 150 N. Riverside — three sites abutting the Chicago River at its confluence downtown — feature riverwalk connections and landscaped parks at their bases. Two of them actually have broader shoulders, as it were, than footprints. Landscape architect Ted Wolff laughed, remembering Wolf Point was the first time he’d actually heard an architect tell him to expand his landscaping so far it would hem in the lobby.

They may not be supertalls by the Council on Tall Buildings’ definition, but these recently announced high-rises suggest Chicago’s architectural legacy may be as much about Millennium Park as it is about Willis Tower.

Chris Bentley is a writer with WBEZ and Midwest Editor for The Architect’s Newspaper. Follow him on Twitter at @cementley.