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Lakeshore East towers would make a skyline splash but at ground level, let the buyer beware

Lakeshore East towers

Because it includes a proposal for Chicago’s 10th-tallest building, a striking serrated tower that would soar over Lake Shore Drive like a ship’s prow, a new plan for four high-rises in the big Lakeshore East complex is commanding headlines.

But the plan’s details deserve sharp scrutiny for many reasons, not the least of which is that executives of the project’s lead developer, Chicago’s Magellan Development, and their families have been showering downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly with contributions.

On one day alone last December, Reilly reported receiving 11 contributions totaling $55,400 tied to Magellan executives. Since 2011, Reilly has received 27 contributions linked to Magellan totaling $92,400, according to state campaign finance records. In addition, Mayor Rahm Emanuel listed $41,400 in contributions tied to Magellan last year, records show.

I’m not suggesting that Magellan is buying the support of Reilly and Emanuel to build more of the bland, exposed-concrete high-rises with which the company blighted River North a decade ago. Actually, its new plan shapes up to be a plus for the skyline. But there’s a lot more to this project than how it will look from the window of a car on Lake Shore Drive.

Urging the city to grant their request for new zoning that would allow taller towers than those envisioned by the original Lakeshore East master plan, the developers say they will build four towers instead of the five that were previously approved. That would leave more open space between the buildings and block fewer views. Near the lake, the development would be far less dense that current zoning allows, with 1,400 residential units, not 2,400.

It all sounds good until you closely examine the plans. More than 20 percent of the planned "open space," for example, would be closed to the public — a private enclave of swimming pools, cabanas and a fire pit. Much of the land that would be open to the public would consist of thin strips of trees and grass. And there would be no affordable housing.

The big question is whether Reilly and the Emanuel administration will demand better — or do the bidding of the developers who have written checks to their political funds. The urban design stakes are high and they go far beyond the blocked views about which some Lakeshore East residents are fretting.

Magellan would partner with Australia’s Lendlease to build three residential high-rises — of approximately 80, 50 and 40 stories — near the lakefront. It would join with South Korea’s Hanwa Engineering & Construction to develop the fourth tower, which would rise about 60 stories at 195 N. Columbus Drive and consist of side-by-side hotels with apartments stacked above.

Give Magellan this much: The company has built a lively enclave — a virtual city within a city — on former rail yards west of Lake Shore Drive and south of the Chicago River. Until the project got going in 2001, that land was being used as a nine-hole golf course set incongruously amid supertall skyscrapers.

Today, Lakeshore East contains apartment and condominium buildings, a hotel, a grocery store, restaurants and a school. At the heart of the 28-acre development is a lush 6-acre park, designed by landscape architect James Burnett, with curving paths and gurgling water features. And there’s more to come, including the under-construction Vista Tower, an angular Jeanne Gang-designed hotel and condominium skyscraper that will be Chicago’s third-tallest building when it is completed in 2020.

Fortunately, the proposed towers, which are designed by bKL Architecture of Chicago, promise to be closer to the elan of Lakeshore East’s Gang-designed Aqua Tower, best known for its curving balconies, than the architectural banality that marks much of the development.

The hotel-residential tower on Columbus would indulge in the current architectural fashion for stacked boxes, with cantilevers, varying building widths and facades expressing internal functions and making the design something more than a visual bore.

The two shorter towers near the lakefront would be angular slabs, with interlocking masses that would create an appealing sense of verticality. Ideally, they will work as a kind of family with the tallest of the group, a condominium skyscraper that would rise 80 stories and 875 feet at East Wacker and Lake Shore drives. That one should be an eye-grabber.

In a reversal of a skyscraper’s typical tapering silhouette, the floors of this tower would expand in size as the building rises, creating more profitable space in its upper reaches. A teardrop-shaped floor plan, configured to optimize views of Lake Michigan, would be serrated at the edges, a configuration that would catch the light and enable the building to offer pleasing reflections. (The arrangement also might prevent migrating birds, which can be confused by the reflections off flat glass walls, from crashing into the tower.)

Sheathed in silvery glass, with alternating stacks of balconies accentuating its sculptural identity, the tower promises to work as both a stand-alone object and a part of the cityscape. Like an exclamation point, it would culminate the wall-like row of towers along East Wacker.

It also would join with Magellan’s proposed 50-story tower to the south to shape another wall-like row along Lake Shore Drive. Most important, it would form a lighthouselike icon near the mouth of the Chicago River, one that might someday combine with a skyscraper on the failed Chicago Spire site to create a gateway to downtown from Lake Shore Drive.

Things get trickier, however, within the cluster of three lakefront skyscrapers (the third, planned for 40 stories, would rise to the west of the other two.) The trio would be loosely arranged, departing from the original master plan’s call for four right-angled towers that would wrap around a park. Magellan and bKL say the plan will create less ground-level density and more open space — more than 134,000 square feet, to be precise.

But about one-fifth of that, including the swimming pools and cabanas, would be "resident accessible open space" and private. The rest of the open space would be public, but much of it would consist of thin strips of trees and grass.

True, there would be a park that’s twice as big as the one in the original master plan, but it has problems of its own, especially in the design of a sloping pathway between Lakeshore East’s upper-level North Harbor Drive and the lakefront.

The pathway is a good idea, and the project’s landscape architect, Montreal’s Claude Cormier, deserves credit for conceiving of it as a richly landscaped valley, not a hill. But the pathway itself, which would consist of a grand stairway and a parallel array of switchbacks for people in wheelchairs, needs to be revisited. Imagine a wheelchair-bound person at the bottom of those switchbacks. If you’re going to provide wheelchair-accessible design, make it more than just a pretty picture.

As for affordable housing, forget it; when a resident asked at a Monday night public hearing whether the project would provide any, she was told that the project is not covered by the city’s affordable housing ordinance.

Looking ahead, there are numerous caveats and potential pitfalls. Construction might start next year on two of the high-rises, but the admirable tallest tower would be the last of the four to be built. Will the current building boom last long enough for that to happen? Equally important is ensuring that the towers on Lake Shore Drive are of the highest architectural quality — a feature that has often eluded Magellan projects in the past.

"These need to be incredibly well-crafted buildings," said bKL’s founding principal, Tom Kerwin.

But addressing the problems at the ground plane matters just as much. It’s laudable when skyscrapers symbolize the vitality of the city. They also need to deliver that vitality on the ground — and they need to deliver it to the broader public, not just those who can afford to live in luxury towers.

Twitter @BlairKamin