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Editorial> Points of Interest on the Chicago River
Christopher Bentley calls for major developments to lead the way in creating a sense of place in downtown Chicago.
The River Point (left) and Wolf Point (right) sites sit prominently on the Chicago River.
Courtesy Bing

Chicago got a first glimpse in May of not one but two high-profile skyscraper projects that will affect downtown more than any development since Trump Tower. Both proposals bet big on a resurgence in demand for downtown office space. River Point is the first Chicago office tower in 14 years to get the green light without any preleased tenants and Wolf Point has sat conspicuously underdeveloped since before the days of Daniel Burnham. If this is the headwind of a broader recovery in Chicago’s downtown real estate market, then the time is ripe to reflect on what a new model for sustaining live/work communities downtown might look like.

Both projects make much of treading lightly on their sites. Wolf Point as proposed would contain almost as much interior area as Willis Tower, packed onto only 22 percent of a 3.9 acre site. Across the water, River Point promises a scaled-back plan that comes in well below density allowed by zoning or pressured by private finance.

Wolf Point proposes three towers designed by Cesar Pelli (top), and the River Point proposal includes a promenade over rail tracks on the waterfront (above).
Courtesy Pelli Clarke Pelli and Hines Development

Of course, River Points footprint reduction cost the city nearly $30 million in tax increment financing dollars. Concerns about the city’s funding priorities are legitimate, as neighborhoods markedly more blighted than Fulton River District languish on the city’s South and West Sides. But the TIF funding, which was approved back in 2008, enabled a very different development than would have made financial sense otherwise. Namely we got a 1.5-acre riverfront park where a higher-density development might have had none.

As a kind of subsidy for more open, public transit-friendly development, this model is not sustainable. The $290 million Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to parks facilities over the next five years wouldn’t go very far at the effective rate taxpayers paid for River Point’s public space. It’s also not desirable from a municipal standpoint, as poor neighborhoods lose out on a potential development tool.

But market forces alone may also fall short. Privately funded Wolf Point includes more than 1,200 parking spots as proposed. Given the size of the development, that number conforms to local zoning code requirements. But for a project that simultaneously touts its proximity to public transit and whose residential units reportedly appeal to young people without cars, it seems a step in the wrong direction.

Green space can counterbalance and encourage high-density development without compromising quality of life. Wolf Point’s and River Point’s parks are too small to spur tourism or significant job growth on their own. But as part of a strategy to reinvigorate the character of downtown, not just its rental market, they could be a good start.

The gamble on a post-recession office space rebound may well pay off, given the recent uptick in downtown office rent. But these prominent riverside developments also bet big on downtown’s sense of place, and they have a rare opportunity to shape the city’s urban character. Both projects deserve great scrutiny. If Chicago is to ultimately sustain interest in communities downtown, projects like Wolf Point and River Point will need to lead the way.

Christopher Bentley