For Union Station, a modest ‘penthouse’ is proposed

Advocates for preserving Chicago’s historic Union Station appear to have won a significant battle against developers with a more modern perspective.

A revised plan for the redevelopment of the neoclassic building calls for adding only a single-story “penthouse,” which officials promise would not be visible from street level.

This comes instead of a modern seven-story glass and steel addition that developers — hired by Amtrak, the building’s owner — had proposed in June. That 404-apartment addition was scrapped after a torrent of opposition from preservationists, railroad fans and architecture critics.

At a meeting in the station’s restored Burlington Room Tuesday evening, developers unveiled the latest plans for the building, along with a proposal for a 715-foot, 1.5 million-square-foot office building with an attached parking structure and a 1.5-acre park, to be located on the block south of the station.

The penthouse would be atop two separate hotels totaling 400 rooms. These hotels would be built within the existing fifth and sixth floors of the building.

The penthouse will not be visible from the street, insisted officials with Chicago-based Riverside Investment & Development and Convexity Properties. They backed up this promise with a sight-line diagram showing how the penthouse would be set back and screened from view.

Riverside CEO John O’Donnell called the plan the “revitalization of a Chicago landmark.”

The penthouse would encircle but not block the station’s iconic 219-foot barrel-vaulted skylight that soars above the Great Hall. The skylight is currently undergoing renovation. 

In addition to the hotels, a pool and fitness center would also be built, but on the station’s lower level. Developers assured those at the meeting, many of whom were concerned about the fate of the station, that the Great Hall would remain essentially as it was intended — for rail passengers.

Two hotel entrances would be added to the building, however. One would be on the building’s north side, Adams Street, and the other on the south side, on Jackson Boulevard. Windows would be installed on the station’s west side, facing Clinton Street. 

The development plans were unveiled at a meeting called by 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly. The proposal must be approved by planning and zoning officials, and the Chicago City Council.

Ward Miller, head of the group Preservation Chicago, drew applause from the audience when he thanked developers for upholding the station landmark status on “one of the great stations of the U.S.” 

Amtrak, which owns Union Station, selected Riverside and Convexity in May 2017 to redevelop the station and surrounding properties at a cost of $1 billion. 

Union Station, with its multi-columned exterior, was completed in 1925. It was designed by Daniel Burnham and successor firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. 

Amtrak has already allocated at least $14 million to restore the interior of the station to its classic beauty. The sweeping marble stairways leading from the Great Hall’s main waiting room up to Canal Street were replaced. The Metropolitan Lounge was relocated. Murals were being repaired.

Critics described that would-be addition as incongruous with the original building. Many labeled it “an abomination.”

In an understatement, Reilly acknowledged the community “wasn’t excited about the last plan.”

A version of this story appeared on Trains magazine News Wire.

— Richard Wronski

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