Week of September 29, 1999
  Snapshot from the Field

The Endless Edifice Complex: Will the
World's Tallest Building Rise in Chicago?

The seemingly unending race for the world's tallest building rages on: Last week, The Chicago Plan Commission approved European American Realty's plans for what would, however fleetingly, rank as the world's tallest office building.

If the proposal's backers pull it off, the facility will reach 1,492 feet (455 m.) at its roofline, topped by two 508-foot (155-m.) antennas. That would bring the building's total height to 2,000 feet (610 m.) -- which would be far more than enough structural hang time to surpass the world's current tallest building, the 1,483-foot (452-m.) Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

(Actually, the world's tallest building, according to the 1999 Guinness Book of Records, is currently the 1,815-foot [553-m.] CN Tower in Toronto; Petronas Towers ranks as the tallest office building.)

Comprised of office, communications, residential retail and parking space, the new 112-story building at the southeast corner of Madison and Dearborn Streets would also bring the world's-tallest-office-building title back to the Second City. Petronas Towers bested the previous winner of the edifice complex race, Chicago's own 1,450-foot (442-m.) Sears Tower.

Some hurdles remain, however, before the building will rise at 7 South Dearborn Street. For example, an existing structure sits on the proposed site, and European American Realty still must secure the approval of the Chicago City Council.

But if all approvals are secured, we'll see the newly crowned world's biggest office building coming online fast. Site razing would "begin immediately," say project officials, and groundbreaking has already been tentatively scheduled for second quarter 2000. Projected move-in is pegged as early as 2003.

"We feel 7 South Dearborn makes an important contribution to the city," says Scott Toberman, European American Realty president and CEO. "It will further contribute to the transformation of downtown Chicago into a vibrant, seven-day-a -week, 24-hours-a-day community. In addition, it opens the window to tomorrow and a 21st century way of living."

Loan, Anchor Tenants Already in Place

Biggest-building plans, of course, often last about as long as members of Boris Yeltsin's cabinet. All signs, however, indicate that the US$500 million 7 Dearborn Street Building is anything but a concrete-pie-in-the-sky proposal. Chicago-based European American Realty, which also has offices in Atlanta, New York and Paris, is clearly a serious player. The privately owned specialist in acquisition and development already has a real estate portfolio reportedly valued at $600 million.

European American Realty has also already obtained a construction loan to build the 1.86 million-sq.-ft. (167,400-sq.-m.) mixed-use structure. (Loan terms had not been disclosed at press time.)

Company officials also say the firm has agreements "in principle" from two lead tenants to lease a total of 100,000 sq. ft. (9,000 sq. m.) of commercial space.

And the building's designer is the well-regarded architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which boasts an abundance of experience in high-profile towers, including the Sears Tower, Chicago's John Hancock Center, and the recently completed Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, China's tallest office building and currently the world's third-tallest.

SOM is also the engineer of record for the proposed 7 South Dearborn Building, whose exterior facade will be stainless steel, accented by light green glass that will be more reflective on the lower floors.

Six distinct groups of floors will be visible at 7 South Dearborn. The lower two groupings will be separated by standard setbacks, while the upper four groupings will be divided by distinctive notches to underscore the building's role as a transmission tower and exhibit the cantilevered character of the facility's construction.

SOM's Smith: 'Design Is Sensitive To both Site and Location'

"The design of 7 South Dearborn is sensitive to both the site and the location," says SOM's Adrian Smith.

"The building was designed to narrow and step back as it rises, lessening the canyon effect common to typical high-rise buildings," Smith explains. "Its corners are rounded, rather than squared, which further opens up space around the building. And the structure has been pulled back as far as possible from Dearborn Avenue, accommodating pedestrian flow and allowing for landscaping around the perimeter."

The interior of 7 South Dearborn will have approximately 70,000 sq. ft. (6,300 sq. m.) of commercial space, and 765,000 sq. ft. (68,850 sq. m.) of office space. Its top floors will house 90,600 sq. ft. (8,154 sq. m.) of communications space. There will be 350 residential units on 40 floors and 800 parking spaces. The plan also allows for an extended-stay hotel as a permitted usage of space.

Part of the plan includes European American Realty's agreement to provide the city with an amenities package valued at more than $2 million dollars. That money would be used for acquisitions and improvements to off-site public space, plus streetscape and transit station improvements.

Chicago Broadcasters Back Idea, Would Use Antennas

The 7 South Dearborn proposal is backed by a non-binding term sheet from the Chicago Digital Broadcasters Committee (CDBC), a consortium of Chicago-area stations. European American is in lease negotiations with the CDBC to sign a long-term agreement to use the new digital antennas that top the structure, which in the SOM design are lit to look like the frozen image of a thunderbolt.

Actually, back in September of 1998 the Plan Commission approved plans for a similar SOM-designed building on the same site. That building, though, measured but a "mere" 1,210 feet (369 m.). European American Realty's new plan requires permits for massing and height specifications that differ from the previously approved project.

Edifice Envy

Industry analysts say prospects are good for 7 Dearborn Building's securing all the necessary approvals for construction. But don't necessarily expect Chicago - or anywhere else, for that matter -- to wear the world's-tallest-building crown for very long.

Granted, the risks in building super-skyscrapers are enormous. The process simply doesn't mix with cost-effectiveness, top builders agree. Two 44-story buildings, for example, are a far more savvy investment than a single 88-story structure, they say.

No matter. The biggest-building boom continues. Size matters. "Very tall buildings touch us intimately in deep chords of our psyche," says renowned U.S. architect Caesar Pelli, who designed Petronas Towers. "It's a very old human urge to point toward the heavens."

In fact, Petronas Towers' leap over the Sears Tower for the No. 1 tallest-building slot even featured a judging controversy worthy of a Cold War-era Olympics. While the Sears Tower's 110 stories easily overshadowed Petronas Towers' 88 floors, judges from the Tall Buildings Council added Petronas Towers' 242-ft. (242-m.) spires, giving the Malaysian structure the win by a skyscrapers' nose -- 29 feet (9 m.).

However silly all that may seem, to some the "my-building's-bigger" title is anything but a laughing matter.

Petronas Towers' No. 1 rank, for example, was vastly important for Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who regards the building as nothing less than the symbolic linchpin of his "20-20 Vision" - a fierce drive to place Malaysia on technology's cutting edge by 2020. In fact, Petronas Towers is part of the northern anchor of the Multimedia Super Corridor (www.mdc.com) that Mahathir is creating to become what he calls "the Asian Silicon Valley."

On the other hand, Petronas Towers' rise to No. 1 spurred some teeth gnashing in the United States, where the super-skyscraper was invented. Says Lynn Beedle, director of the Leigh University-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, "Chicago couldn't get over" losing the No. 1 spot.

Not Just a Guy Thing

With that sort of gonzo-style, go-for-it gusto pushing the process, we undoubtedly haven't seen the last of the tall buildings battles. And the hormones driving this big-building edifice complex aren't limited to the male of the species.

Consider Nina Kung Wang. Reportedly Asia's richest woman, Wang has been so intent on creating the world's tallest building that she had her Chinachem Group abandoned the original blueprints for a Hong Kong skyscraper after plans were announced for the 1,500-ft. (457-m.) Shanghai World Financial Center. Wang then devised a new plan (which the Asian contagion has thrown into limbo) that called for a 1,640-ft. (500-m.) Hong Kong skyscraper.

Now, though, if 7 Dearborn Street comes to pass, Wang may decide to re-up the structural ante in this Jack-and-the-Beanstalk race for aerial supremacy.

Stay tuned.



©1999 Conway Data, Inc. All rights reserved. Data is from many sources and is not warranted to be accurate or current.