The redevelopment of the Chicago Union Station has been a long time coming. The 1925 Beaux Arts station has seen minor repairs in the past few years, but a recently released master plan envisions a complete redevelopment of the historic building and the surrounding area.
Led by Riverside Investment & Development Co., the Goettsch Partners–designed master plan will take the form of 3.1 million square feet of new commercial, retail, and residential space. Divided into three phases, work will begin in the historic headhouse and continue to neighboring properties, owned by Amtrak, above the below-grade railroad tracks. When complete, five new towers will rise above and around the station.
“This building was envisioned by Daniel Burnham in the 1909 Plan for Chicago as the city’s primary rail station,” said Amtrak President and CEO Charles W. “Wick” Moorman IV to the press at the announcement of the master plan. “It is in that spirit, that we have big plans for both this headhouse building and nearby properties owned by Amtrak.”
The headhouse, originally designed by Burnham and completed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White after his death, is considered a Beaux Arts masterpiece. With its 110-foot-tall skylit great hall, the headhouse has often been used as the backdrop of films, most notably in the climax of the 1987 movie The Untouchables. The new master plan calls for a dramatic addition to the headhouse: Initial designs call for two 12-story residential towers to be added to the top of the building. The existing top portion, which is currently office space, will also be redeveloped. While adding towers to the top of the historic structure may seem drastic, it should be noted that the original design called for a commercial skyscraper to sit atop the building. This technique of matching civic spaces with office high-rises was once popular in Chicago, most famously in the cases of the Auditorium Theatre and the Lyric Opera House.
The rest of the development will follow another once-common building practice associated with Union Station. Immediately to the south of the headhouse, three new towers will take advantage of air rights over a set of 14 tracks that run into the station. The Chicago Daily News building and the Chicago Main Post Office, two of Chicago’s most recognizable art deco icons, were built in the same way, straddling the tracks to the north and south of the station.
Along with the towers, the master plan calls for improvements to the passenger experience as well. Despite serving over 50,000 guests a day, the station, which is mostly underground, is outdated and generally unpleasant. Street-level retail, historic restoration, and a new food hall will all be addressed in the redevelopment. A hotel has been proposed for above the headhouse, and publicly accessible terraces and plazas are also included in the master plan.
Considering Chicago Union Station is the only major train station in Chicago, and the third busiest in the country, its surroundings have seen surprisingly little development over the years. The most recent addition to the area is a $40 million bus transit center designed by Chicago-based Muller+Muller. Ironically, that station will have to be demolished and rebuilt to be integrated into the proposed master plan. But, since no hard dates have been set to implement the new plan as it negotiates the financial side of the project, the transit station is safe for now.
While every major development in Chicago brings with it scores of critics and champions, this one has the potential to spark particularly lively discussions. If the architecture of the project at all resembles the renderings of the master plan, many Chicagoans will have something to say about putting two glass towers on top of their much-loved Beaux Arts landmark.