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Our 2020 roundup of South Loop projects was presented online Sept. 16 and can be viewed on YouTube.
Near South Community Plan
South Loop Neighbors evaluates proposed buildings by looking at the anticipated urban design impacts, particularly the pedestrian environment, and based on compliance with the Near South Community Plan, adopted by the Chicago Plan Commission in May 2004.
The most restrictive provision of the plan are the height guidelines on pages 59-60. The plan says these height limits are “intended to set upper limits” for planned developments. All zones are limited to 400 feet or less; even lower west of State Street and south of Roosevelt Road.
Sky’s Now the Limit on Michigan Boulevard
In February 2016, the Chicago Landmarks Commission adopted Design Guidelines for the Historic Michigan Boulevard District. While the long-delayed guidelines provide welcome guidance regarding the design of new buildings along this signature streetscape, an addendum introduces the concept of a “bridge district” for the blocks between 8th Street and 11th Street. There, buildings up to 900 feet tall would be permitted, despite Commission rules requiring that any new building “exhibits the general size, shape, and scale of the features associated with the property or district.” The new guidelines:
Eighth to Eleventh Street
Most of the buildable sites located in the District are located at the south boundary, from Eighth to Eleventh Street, with less than 50% of the streetwall frontage contributing to the historic district. These facts, coupled with the existing new high-rise construction around these two blocks supports new construction that may bridge the height differences between the existing historic buildings in the core of the district and the new construction south of Eleventh Street at the district boundary. Heights of new construction in this section of the district can fall between 400–900 feet.
Should applicants choose to exceed the existing district heights from Eighth to Eleventh Street, they should be advised that the design for a tall building should still be compatible with the historic characteristics of the district, and respect the existing tower massing, etc. seen within the district as described by these guidelines.
Here is the testimony South Loop Neighbors offered against the guideline addendum:
I’m Dennis McClendon of South Loop Neighbors. We’re the neighborhood association for the area including the south end of the Historic Michigan Boulevard district.
We’re very happy to see these guidelines finally adopted. We’re not very happy with 900-foot buildings.
Until now, under this commission’s own rules, new structures in historic districts have been required to be compatible in size and shape with the existing structures. It’s laughable to say that a 900-foot building “exhibits the general size and shape” of the district’s existing structures—not one of which exceeds 425 feet.
We reject the idea that the last couple of blocks of a historic district needs to act as some kind of transition to the city around it. We designate landmark districts precisely because they are special places that need protection. Virtually no Chicago landmark districts are more than two blocks deep. How can this committee now resist a 12-story tower in Old Town, if it’s described as a transition to the Gold Coast or Lincoln Park West?
A decade ago, concerned that there was no predictability regarding development in our neighborhood, our association persuaded the Dept of Planning and Development to prepare the Near South Community Plan, which Plan Commission adopted in May 2004. It has the usual mushy platitudes about improving the pedestrian environment and reducing environmental impacts—but it also has, on pages 59 and 60, specific district height limits that, the plan says, are “intended to set upper limits.” For this part of Michigan Avenue, a height limit of 425 feet was given.
Of course, that plan assumed that Landmarks restrictions would place even more stringent restrictions on height and massing. Until today, so did we.
What’s the danger from approving such tall buildings here? First, there’s the shadowing of Grant Park, our city’s most important public space. It’s an axiom of urban design that you don’t allow buildings to put public parks in permanent shadow. More relevant to this group is the pressure it puts on the remaining, unlandmarked, historic buildings in the neighborhood. When the sky’s the limit, it will be very difficult to protect the small but handsome film exchanges of Wabash and Michigan avenues, or the remaining printing houses west of Clark street, outside the Printing House Row district.
What can possibly justify a height limit twice the size of the district’s tallest building? If the mayor or the city council want to declare that development or property tax revenue is more important than protecting Chicago’s cultural and architectural heritage, let them do so openly and let them take the heat for it. Don’t do their dirty work for them. Preserve the scale of this landmark district; reject the 900-foot guideline.