chicago spire back on track?


Courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation

There’s a buzz this weekend around the news that Shelbourne North Water Street LP has found a backer to help it out of bankruptcy, possibly paving the way for work on the dormant Chicago Spire to start up again.  I’ll confess that the mechanics and legalities of the finances are well beyond me, but the support of Atlas Apartment Holdings LLC out of Northbrook is nearly the first positive news the project has had since work stopped in 2010.

As Lynn Becker points out, Atlas isn’t exactly a household name, and Shelbourne left plenty of burned bridges as the project folded in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis.  Chicago’s market has recovered, but most of the investment right now is in rental apartments, not in condominiums, which make up all of the Spire’s proposed program.  The proposed influx of investment would only get previous debts paid off, leaving the question of financing the project’s re-commissioning and construction open.

There’s been plenty of speculation that getting the Spire re-started, built, and sold could in fact be possible in today’s market–after all, if there was ever a project geared toward the very healthy 1%, this is it.  Lots of comment pages have pointed out, though, that even in a hot market the relatively small apartments (on average) seem out of step with the cost of going so tall, and with financing based on a luxury model.  And with Calatrava’s press recently, some of the shine he brought to the project may have, um, dimmed a bit.

But to my mind there are even basic logistical problems with the design that still raise some concerns.  One of the few published floor plans shows a total of eleven passenger elevators to serve 1200 luxury condominiums.  That’s a ratio of over 100:1, where we usually think of 60:1 or 70:1 for high-end developments (even lower end apartments are often around 90:1).  Coupled with the fact that neighbors have pointed out that dead-end North Water Street isn’t really built for another 1500 cars, there are still some figures here that seem based in the weird optimism of the pre-2008 crash.

Granted, I’m not a huge Calatrava fan.  While he’s alluded to Chicago’s skyscraper tradition before, this one seems more in the Masonic Temple vein than anything else.  There’s a part of me that would like to see this, if for no other reason than to settle the “nation’s tallest” debate for a little while (remember, Chicago already has the country’s tallest building, because the top of that thing in New York is, um, just a spire).  It would be a long, long haul from this first step to get work started on the ‘bathtub’ again, but stranger things have happened.

This week’s news has at least been enough for the Chicago Architecture Foundation to put the Spire back into its city model (see above, and thanks for the pic!), so at least there’s some construction work going on…

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