Exclusive: What’s in the works for Chicago’s old post office?
Perhaps you’re among the thousands of Chicagoans who either drive under or pass by the old Chicago post office every day. It’s been vacant since 1996. WGN News has learned the old post office has become a potential leading location for a city casino. Nancy Loo reports on some fast-moving developments and takes us inside for an exclusive look.
Even after nearly two decades of vacancy, there’s no mistaking the grandeur that’s still alive in Chicago’s old main post office at West Van Buren and Congress Parkway. Time has literally stood still since the building was shut down in 1996.
“We just can’t let this project lie fallow any longer,” says architect Joe Antunovich. “It’s too great a building, too great a space. You just have to step foot in this grand lobby and see that it’s something that’s so wasted by not being used every day of its life.”
Antunovich is the latest Chicago architect to take over the redevelopment of this national landmark. The site was purchased by a British investor three years ago, and his previous plans proved too ambitious. But now, a downsized version by Antunovich is gaining praise and political support. Phase one would include a sweeping addition to the river, and a thousand foot tower for businesses and hotel rooms. Atriums would be cut into the upper floors of the main structure for unique residential units, with original parquet flooring salvaged from the site.
“The lower three levels for retail and entertainment uses; many kinds of entertainment could be possible.” We asked the architect, would a casino be a safe bet as that entertainment? “Entertainment stretches to a wide realm of definitions. But you could certainly fit a casino in the amount of space you’re gonna create? Given the 2.7 million square feet that exists here, a use like that could be accommodated, yes!”
“I think that would be a perfect site for that,” says Chicago Alderman Danny Solis who picked up the post office site in his ward through city re-districting. He says the city has moved beyond whether or not to have a casino; it’s a matter of where.
“We are in dire straits as far as revenue. We lose $20 million to outside states. Those people are going to gamble. They’re coming from Chicago. So, let’s make a nice place in the city of Chicago. I think the state legislature understands that.” The gaming bill passed the state Senate May first, soon after Mayor Emanuel took to YouTube to insist that all city casino revenues would go towards education. “A Chicago casino is the only casino in this state that will be totally dedicated for our children.”
The city planning commission is expected to consider the first phase of the post office redevelopment plan on June 20th, after completion of a traffic study. Alderman Solis predicts this; “I think it will be approved.” So, with city approval looking likely for phase one of the post office proposal, the possibility of a Chicago casino license approved by state lawmakers in the next few weeks, and political support for the site to be anchored by a casino, architect Antunovich says it may be a winning timeline for developers. “We would start construction here almost immediately.” And with or without a casino, the renewed post office site could be open for business by mid 2015. The nearby Holiday Inn would become a parking facility. And Chicago would have over five- million square feet of new businesses and homes to explore.
If successful, phase two could someday bring a two-thousand square foot high rise that would dwarf the Willis Tower- a building that architect Antunovich says would make a true statement about Chicago: “At the gateway to our city, we should do something extraordinary. And this is an opportunity to do something extraordinary, a real game changer here in the Southwest loop.”
While the future looks promising at the old post office, two other abandoned Chicago landmarks have murkier outlooks. In our next report, an update on the old Cook County Hospital building, empty since 2002. Also, a look at the massive Brach’s candy factory on the West side which shut down around the same time.
Developers of the post office project insist they are ready to go once the city gives the green light. So, the clean out of the old building could begin this summer. City Hall sources tell WGN the post office is most appealing. But other possible casino sites include McCormick Place, the Congress Hotel, and the old Michael Reese hospital building.
Pam Grimes & Mike D’Angelo contributed to this story.