Chicago architect Scott Sarver looks at the West Loop and sees the future. And his firm, smdp, certainly isn’t the first or the only one to predict some sort of critical mass for the bevy of high-tech office developments that have made hay with the neighborhood’s central location, real estate momentum, and newfound cultural cachet.
In cooperation with developer Fifield Companies, Sarver and his firm have fleshed out a masterplan that calls for 10 million square feet of new office space in the West Loop in 10 years. The plan also calls for a 10-to-15-acre park covering the trench of the Kennedy Expressway, which forms a barrier between the West Loop and downtown. Alan Schachtman, executive vice president of Fifield, called this hypothetical green a Millennium Park for the West Loop.
“Right now the Kennedy is a big chasm. It’s really a divide,” said Schachtman. “Even the blocks adjacent to it are a little tough.” He said that a flagship park project could kick off development, but it would need programming and revenue-generators and people would have to get comfortable with the idea. The project would take about two years to complete. Construction would only shut down one or two lanes at a time while crews built the supportive decks.
Chicago’s downtown long ago spilled over the boundaries that traditionally defined the Loop, creating a 10-square-mile “mega-Loop” with growth to rival any city in the country. Sarver said that, physically, the city will have to continue expanding west. Streeterville and River North are already developed, the South Loop lacks public transportation and accessibility compared to its western counterpart, Sarver said, and the area has a secret weapon: fiber optic cables. The backbone of Chicago’s considerable digital infrastructure—the third largest fiber optic capacity of any metropolitan area in the country, after New York and D.C.—runs down Clinton and Canal Streets. That fact could entice more and more high-tech companies to establish themselves close to the source.
Sarver’s masterplan covers five blocks, though he initially submitted an idea for three blocks to the city. He admitted it would take some “creativity” on the part of City Hall—in the form of accelerated building permits—to sustain the viable redevelopment of the entire neighborhood in just 10 years. Sarver also said that tax increment financing dollars and the Economic Development For a Growing Economy Tax Credit program should be targeted to incentivize high-density development in the area.
Fifield is already well versed in the real estate markets of downtown, and the West Loop in particular. The company is drawing up plans with smdp for an Aqua Tower-style mixed-use project: 800,000 square feet of office space, 300 to 400 hotel rooms, and 300 to 400 apartments. Schachtman said they shopped around less-ambitious plans and were encouraged by feedback from potential tenants who said they were aiming too small.
“We’re going out ahead on this because this thing needs a champion,” Schachtman said, “but we aren’t going to build this alone.”