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Trumping Chicago's Architecture Critics

The real estate tycoon's high-rise plan is meeting cautious optimism -- high praise in this city.

September 25, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Architecture guides on the tourist-filled boats that float the Chicago River love to opine about how the green glass of one high-rise pays homage to the river, how another's red stonework complements its neighbors. When they drift past the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper building, however, the guides tend to stick with the facts.

"Built in the 1950s," one called over his megaphone recently, "it was designed to look like a barge."

In that, many critics agree, it succeeded.

But now, after several years of tinkering with plans, New York real estate developer Donald Trump is pledging to knock down the dreary seven-story structure and erect a 90-story commercial and residential building in its place.

His vision has been met with a most unusual response here in architecturally obsessed Chicago: Architects, critics and even the famously difficult government officials who protect the city's aesthetic reputation are cautiously optimistic that Trump -- who long has favored glitz and dazzle -- may construct an eye-pleasing building that might improve the skyline rather than overwhelm it.

"We were afraid he was going to take a gold bar, inflate it and tilt it on its side," said Ned Cramer, curator at the Chicago Architectural Foundation. "So far, he's done better than he might have. But it's not over."

Trump and the owner of the Sun-Times, Hollinger International Inc., have been working together on a high-rise proposal for three years.

The current building occupies one of the city's premier spaces, less than a block off Michigan Avenue, next to the elegant Spanish-revival Wrigley Building, and with several hundred feet of riverfront access. The boxy, postwar steel-and-glass structure has been a curiosity for many students of architecture but, in the end, less a landmark than an eyesore.

When Trump unveiled his first proposal for the Sun-Times lot in 2001, it played on Chicagoans' desire to reclaim ownership of the world's tallest building.

Until 1996, the Sears Tower had held that title, a source of pride in the "City of Big Shoulders." Then came the Petronas Twin Towers, rising 1,483 feet above Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- and 33 feet higher than the Sears building.

The Chicago Trump Tower would rise to 1,500 feet, Trump declared, with least 2.4 million square feet of space.

Although reclaiming the title had a certain appeal, critics -- and there are many here -- lambasted the plan. The massive stacked-block look of the initial design, they said, would overwhelm the riverfront. A few months later, the Sept. 11 terror attacks not only drove market prices down, but also caused some to rethink the wisdom of living or working in a building 150 stories tall.

Together with Chicago-based architect Adrian Smith of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which designed both the Sears Tower and Chicago's 1,127-foot John Hancock Tower, Trump began whittling away and reshaping the proposal.

The current plan, unveiled this week, is humbler in its stature -- it would be the fourth-tallest building in the city -- and more delicate in its lines. At $550 million to $650 million, it would still be Trumpian in price, both to build and to buy into.

The top floors would be for condominiums, starting at $470,000 for a one-bedroom and $8.7 million for the priciest penthouses. The lower floors would be for office space and probably would house the Sun-Times. The middle floors would be a "condominium hotel," spaces that could be rented out.

"Prior to Sept. 11, we had plans for 150 stories," Trump said at the unveiling. "What we end up with is a better building, a more practical building."

The design of the steel-and-glass structure has numerous setback areas that appear to slim the building and keep it from looming over the beloved Wrigley Building. And that vision has pleased some of the people who need to be pleased.

One is Lee Bey, Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief deputy for planning and design and a former architecture critic for the Sun-Times.

"It's a tough crowd here in Chicago, architecturally," Bey said. "That site cries out for an architecturally significant building, and every Chicagoan knows it. This design is causing some excitement."

Trump plans to demolish the Sun-Times "barge" and begin building next summer.

Real estate experts and financiers are divided about the likelihood of Trump's latest dream getting off the Midwest ground by then, or in its present shape. After remaining strong for most of the recent market slump, condominium sales in Chicago have begun to soften. Without plenty of advance sales, investors may be cautious -- although Trump said, "It's very easy for me to get financing."

Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin lamented elements of the design in a recent review, describing a tower that is "more stump-like than before." But, he added, "Smith and Trump have come a long way from the developer's terrible first proposal."

When it comes to Chicago architecture -- and Donald Trump -- that almost counts as praise.

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