Old Chicago Post Office back on the market: what to do, what to do?

Any readers checking the latest news from Curbed Chicago will know by now that the Old Chicago Post Office is back on the market. Previous owner, British developer Bill Davies, put the massive building back on sale after not trying very hard struggling to develop the site. Regardless of what happens now, whoever buys the property will have to spend an additional hundred of millions if not billions of dollars on redevelopment. And, the real question stands, what will go there?

Old Chicago Post Office

There is laundry list of desired projects for this site. Some Chicagoans have looked forward to Walgreens moving its headquarters from suburban Deerfield here. Other proposals include artists spaces and a tech hub, while others stick to the classic list of condos, hotel, retail; and, of course, the Chicago casino has been included amongst these ideas.

The ultimate result is going to be big. We can only hope that the developers have the foresight to put something on this site that not only enhances life in the neighborhood, but also the city as a whole. This is a private property and the city can’t impose too much on what happens once somebody buys. That said, it is one hell of a private property and it would be delusional of both the city and developers to think both parties shouldn’t have a stake in this.

This is what the first phase of initial plans for the Old Post Office in Chicago proposed by British developer Bill Davies initially looked like in the summer of 2013.

This is what the first phase of initial plans for the Old Post Office in Chicago proposed by British developer Bill Davies initially looked like in the summer of 2013.

The city and public need to take a stance on this project and make it clear to the developers that this has to have elements that improve public well-being and access in the surrounding area. This project has the potentially to radically change the way the area of the West Loop around Union Station functions and should be part of that change.

If Chicago ever needed a proper department of urban planning it is moments like these.

Transportation and green space cannot be left out of any project that goes here and much like the agreement made by the developers of the Chicago Spire to build DuSable Park and the Lincoln Park Apple Store to rebuild the head house of the North/Clybourn Red Line stop, the development of green space and better transit infrastructure in the area should be pegged to this project.

The site includes prime river front property, which by no means should be cut off from public use and would be ideal for providing a small green oasis along the water in an area that is increasingly dense with little new green space. It’s fair to assume at least one if not two high-rise buildings may at some point be included in new plans for this site, including along the river, but as plans released last summer and report on by DNAInfo Chicago reveal, the smaller plot of land along the river north of the Eisenhower Expressway would accommodate the smallest of the potential skyscrapers (a mere 40 story tall building). Any project should keep riverfront construction to the smaller plot to preserve the larger plot south of the Eisenhower Expressway along Harrison Street for parkland.

Additionally, any new construction must take advantage of the city’s Transit Oriented Development ordinance. Considering the site is adjacent to Union Station, the proposed CTA bus terminal, intercity bus termini, the Forest Park Branch of the Blue Line, and a mere four blocks from the LaSalle stop on the Loop and Ogelvie Transit Center each there is no excuse for the amount of parking that was included in the original proposal (depending on the date it ranged from 4,000-5,500 plus spots). Part of the initial proposals included building parking into the Old Post Office building and a new garage on the west side of the building on the plot at the intersection of Harrison and Canal streets. That can be scratched and built into whatever new office, hotel, or residential tower desired. This would work into increasing the amount of available office space to do something that is long overdue: demolish the tower above Union Station on the 200 block of South Canal Street.

Olf Post Office Site

 

Removing this 26 story tower from the scene would allow Amtrak, Metra, and the City of Chicago to finally move forward and vastly improve the aesthetic and logistical function of the station, because it would remove the cluster of support columns and other impediments from directly above the busiest part of the station while allowing in natural light. It is a rare opportunity, but so much new commercial office space will be developed in the same four-square blocks that offices in this building could easily be moved to new offices at the Old Post Office making for an easy demolition of the Union Station tower.

The development of the Old Post Office really should be pegged to the redevelopment of Union Station and somehow include things like better direct access to the new bus terminal (something I believe should be made bigger and include intercity buses), new auxiliary entrances to the south platforms along Van Buren Street, and perhaps most import and redevelopment of the Clinton Blue Line stop to make the station entrance bigger, more visible, better lit, and build out auxiliary entrances at Canal Street and/or in the Old Post Office site.

This site is a big one, physically and emotionally. One way or another it will change the city and collectively Chicagoans can only hope the developers are smart, socially and environmentally conscientious, and willing to work with the city to invest in the area around the site that benefits their private interests and the public interests of the city as a whole. This is going to be a great urban planning project and challenge. This new update should be fun to follow.

And on one final note, I really hope Antunovich Associates are not included in any new projects; if they are we’re guaranteed nothing more than suburbia in the sky.

Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 3 (delayed posting) – Intermodal connections are essential keys to success

Getting to Union Station by any means other than car or taxi, especially for people unfamiliar with the layout of Downtown Chicago, is by no means easy. Although there are numerous bus routes that terminate at Union Station and the area is certainly within walking distance of the Loop and things like Divvy bike share have made it easier to get around town by bike, unlike in most major Western cities, none of Chicago’s train stations (not one!) have direct access to the city’s subway/metro system—the ‘L’.* An effort to improve Union Station necessitates taking on such a groundbreaking infrastructure project like a subway along Canal Street that would include the addition of ‘L’ stops at Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center as well as improvements to surrounding bus stops and terminals. Intermodal connectivity is a cornerstone of good transportation networks and one which Chicago sorely lacks at Union Station (and by extension all its major stations).

Union Station has been conceptually conceived as having the potential to act like a third airport right in the center of Chicago. However, it will not compete with these airports if it doesn’t get up to speed with the intermodal connections offered there. Both are connected directly to the ‘L’ at the very least and both offer some form of dedicated bus facilities. An overall renewal of intermodal connections at Union Station should focus on two major projects: the Clinton Street Subway and a new bus terminal with facilities for both local buses, BRT, coach buses.  These have the potential to hugely and positively impact the efficiency of transportation connections at Union Station, although one would be significantly cheaper than the other, the costs of both are certainly worth the long-term benefits.

In the case of a new ‘L’ route, the shortness of the route would both help to reign in the costs of the project and the overall impact of construction. Although it’s in a densely built up area, the impacts would be significantly outweighed by the potential benefits: direct ‘L’ access to O’Hare from the West Loop, more ‘L’ access for West Loop residents and workers, direct access by train between two major Chicago train stations with the potential to direct access to a third station** and all along less than a 1 mile stretch.

The new segment of subway would also be more than just direct access to Union Station, but the final segment in a secondary Loop that would be formed by the two branches of the Blue Line. This Loop would also be a station Loop facilitating direct connections between LaSalle Street Station, Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center with indirect connections to Millennium Station and potentially Van Buren Street Station along the Metra Electric via underground ped-ways. Improvements to service along the Blue Line branches would also be possible, by splitting the line into two new lines, one along each branch. The Forest Park branch has significantly lower use compared to the O’Hare branch and splitting them into two new lines, means the CTA could better customize service on each branch accordingly.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line's Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line’s Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

Uninterrupted access from a subway station to the interior of Union Station could be  a way to increase the use of the Great Hall as well. A mezzanine level built below Canal Street could facilitate the construction of street portals along Canal between Van Buren and Adams as well as access portals to a bus terminal and the Great Hall in Union Station. The availability of space inside the west end of the station’s Great Hall means there is ample room for elevators, escalators and stairs to the mezzanine level. This infrastructure need not be in the Great Hall itself either, but rather adjacent to it. A mezzanine level to an underground ‘L’ station also doubles as a covered and heated passageway to the bus terminal, which in Chicago is a huge plus considering how extreme summer and winter weather can get.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The bus terminal would also facilitate better intermodal and inter-bus transfers. First, it gives passengers transferring from train to bus or arriving at Union Station just for the bus an identifiable landmark towards which they can go knowing they’ll find their buses. As it is now, the curbside bus stops are difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. The different bus companies terminating at Union Station use different blocks of Canal Street too, which leads to confusion as to which block to wait at for a bus. Secondly, the curbside bus terminals don’t facilitate easy transfers between busses and cause overcrowding of the sidewalks. They are uncomfortable places to wait for a bus too and don’t include shelters, awnings or benches for passengers. Additionally, the curbside stops mean coach buses must contend with other traffic to get a spot to load and unload and crowds the streets. They not only get blocked, but they block traffic. Altogether this system is creating a traffic nightmare.

A bus terminal would include that and much more. An indoor waiting room provides an additional level of comfort for waiting customers and also doubles as a space for bathrooms, rental lockers, cafés and food stands as well as ticketing and information kiosks or offices. A staff lounge would also be available for the staff of bus companies. A terminal could also host a small staff to beginning taking tickets or act as baggage handlers to speed up turnover and departure times. Bus operators could also use the more comfortable space to improve transfers between routes. A shuttle bus could ferry passengers to the Greyhound terminal south of Union Station beyond walking distance.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O'Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second 'loop' allowing for O'Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA 'L' in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O’Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second ‘loop’ allowing for O’Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA ‘L’ in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

Creating strong, efficient, and user-friendly intermodal connections at Union Station will require a mix of simple and extreme solutions. However, no great train station, especially those in large cities, exists within a transportation vacuum. And considering the proximity to other stations downtown a well-connected Union Station could effectively create a Downtown ‘super station’ split between Union Station, LaSalle Street Station and Ogilvie. Such connections would also facilitate the movement of people to, within and out of Downtown Chicago.

The importance of such connections does not go unnoticed in other cities either and should be a lesson for Chicago to emulate. Although plans exist for improvements to Canal Street and Union Station, a more impressive master plan should consider some helpful projects in other cities. In Berlin for example, the first part of a major extension of the U-5 subway was to first and foremost build a connection to the new Berliner Hauptbahnhof. The U-55 is a mere 0.9 miles long with three stops, but effectively connects the otherwise unconnected subway system to the main train station. The London Underground offers a more dramatic example with the Circle Line, which connects 5 major intercity stations with the larger Tube network. The importance of access to bus terminals doesn’t go unnoticed either. Denver is the best new example of bus and rail intermodal connections being brought together. Even little Kalamazoo offers convenient bus-train connections at its main Amtrak station.

A key, if not one of the most important keys to Union Station’s success is dramatically and wildly improving intermodal connections. This won’t just bring it to the same level as stations around the world, but truly help it become the center of rail in Chicago and the Midwest as well as the Downtown ‘airport’ Chicago is dreaming of.

*To get to Millennium Station from the ‘L’ one has to get off at either the Lake Red Line, Washington Blue Line, or Loop Randolph stops then walk 2-3 blocks further east or through the complex pedestrian passage ways underground. To get to LaSalle Street Station from the LaSalle Blue Line stop one has to walk a block south and find the hidden entrance to the platforms and Olgilvie Transportation Center requires a two block walk from the Clinton Green-Pink Line stop. 

**Olgilvie and Union stations are both along Canal Street, for direct access between the CTA Blue Lines LaSalle stop and LaSalle Street Station reconfiguration of the former would be necessary. 

Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 2 – Getting aesthetics right

Visitors and commuters arriving and departing Chicago via Union Station are greeted and bid adieu by a mess of traffic and impromptu coach bus station along a crumbled and grey Canal Street and a parking garage and surface parking lot on the south side of Jackson Avenue. The entire area, which is surrounding by a cluster of skyscrapers and relatively dull commercial and business uses, does nothing to engage people. While many have a purpose to be there without the presence of Union Station, the area would probably be as exciting as the Financial District on a Sunday morning. While little could be done to change the businesses or activities that go on in the area, aesthetic changes immediately outside of Union Station are the first steps necessary to change the fortunes of the station and remake it as a grand center of rail transportation.

Most traffic to and from Union Station is funneled along Canal Street, which is one-way northwards with a southbound bus-only lane along the 300 block of south Canal. On the 400 block of south Canal, coach busses attract large crowds of people heading to all sorts of destinations. Cabs and private vehicles clutter and clogged all the time as people compete to get the best spaces in front of the main entrance of Union Station while more coach busses squeeze into whatever spaces are open. There is no organization and no calm. A noticeable lack of interesting restaurants, cafés, shops or tourist information centers nearby and no clear signage for visitors looking for access to the “L” or find other nearby commuter rail stations. The exterior status of Chicago’s Union Station is nothing but bad.

With the wealth of examples available Union Station has plenty of models to work from, which can guide how to improve its exterior workings. From an aesthetic and logistic point of view, the main changes should focus around the two blocks of 300 and 400 south Canal Street as well as the full block south of Union Station, which is currently given over entirely to parking structures. Reorganizing how traffic flows, people move and utilize the spaces around Union Station as well as dramatic aesthetic changes could be achieved through a series of measures.

The Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, Germany shows the efficiency of connecting multiple transportations options in one space. It also shows that these can be combined without compromising space and aesthetics. On the ground there is ample room to move and relax.

The Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, Germany shows the efficiency of connecting multiple transportations options in one space. It also shows that these can be combined without compromising space and aesthetics. On the ground there is ample room to move and relax.

First, a bus station must be built adjacent to Union Station, which would obviously best be build on the block south of Jackson, which is already planned for a bus terminal by the City of Chicago. From what material is available though is whether or not that terminal is capable of supporting coach bus traffic. If that isn’t the case, a fully fledged bus terminal capable of supporting CTA local busses, potential bus rapid transit and coach busses is necessary for clearing streets and sidewalks of bus traffic clutter as well as providing carriers the necessary space for bettering the flow of people on and off busses, make for immediate connections. A bus terminal for all gives passengers a clear geographic landmark to reach, where they know they’ll find the busses they need to catch. This lot could also be utilized to get taxis and privates cars off of Canal Street for drop-offs and pick-ups. A taxi stand could easily be cut into the lot along Jackson Street with private drop-off and pick-up lanes along the entire length of Adams and Jackson streets north and south of Union Station.

Such a set up resembles the Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, Germany. A smaller, but nonetheless, busy station on the main line between Basel, Switzerland and Frankfurt, Germany the station is defined by a taxi and private car drop-off/pick-up round round-about and bus terminal all within meters of each other. Wide sidewalks and ample space for plazas open up the space to cafés and space for travelers to linger and relax.

A very rudimentary sketch of what it would look like if Canal Street in front of Union Station were closed and turned into a plaza already shows how much more aesthetically pleasing and welcoming the space is in comparison to the current tangle of traffic.

A very rudimentary sketch of what it would look like if Canal Street in front of Union Station were closed and turned into a plaza already shows how much more aesthetically pleasing and welcoming the space is in comparison to the current tangle of traffic.

This is what Canal Street in front of Union Station looks like now.

This is what Canal Street in front of Union Station looks like now.

Organize traffic and the 300 block of south Canal Street can be closed off to all traffic and turned into a pedestrian plaza. Nothing would be more appropriate for this space. The plaza. From a purely aesthetic point of view, a plaza would make the area more visually welcoming while also providing an incredibly dense and built up part of Chicago some public space. Additionally, it would give travelers an outdoor space to relax in the summer and could even be utilized as a space for markets all year. Like at the Hauptbahnhof in Freiburg, the store fronts facing Canal Street in Union Station’s head house could be converted into cafés and restaurants with outdoor seating protected from the elements due to the overhanging roof and colonnade. Food carts, newspaper stands or other food stands would give a reason to come to this space and add to it’s vivacity. A similar project in London to clear away the old addition to the front of King’s Cross Station is similar in that it opens up a huge space to the public and creates room for a welcome plaza where people inevitable gather.

This shows the area in front of King's Cross with the old addition that covers the space in front of the station.

This shows the area in front of King’s Cross with the old addition that covers the space in front of the station.

This shows what the space in front of the station will look like after renovations and the removal of the old addition. It opens up into an airy and spacious plaza.

This shows what the space in front of the station will look like after renovations and the removal of the old addition. It opens up into an airy and spacious plaza.

While these changes don’t dramatically alter the way in which traffic flows within the station, nor does it answer many of the questions that need to be answered as to how to improve the station’s overall condition, it does take a step that is very probable in the right direction to improving the overall experience of people who use the station, both visitors and commuters.