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"The late 1990's were a similar time of redevelopment in America, if not in such Herculean measures. It is certainly notable in our two major urban centers of New York and Chicago. New York City was able to rebuild Times Square as a glowing conglomeration of mirrored skyscrapers coated with neon. And the economic boon of the Tech Age was particularly good to Chicago, which was already in the process of being completely overhauled from the industrial city of lore to the modern business center of the New Economy."

By Charles Shaw



IN 1990, AFTER WITNESSING THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL AND SEEING THE IMPENDING COLLAPSE OF COMMUNISM IN THE WEST, the Chinese government realized that the only way they could avoid the foibles of post-Marxist/Leninist government was to permit and foster free trade. They designated five areas as "special commerce and development zones": Beijing, Shenzen, Guangzhou, Shanghai/Pudong, and in 1997, the territory of Hong Kong. They also opened their first world stock exchange to finance the redevelopment.

The "Pudong" district was an undeveloped, pre-industrial ghetto area of marshland across the Huangpu River from the Old Shanghai. The Chinese had designs to turn Shanghai into the banking center of the New Asia, so they needed to actually physically create a city in which to house this international banking community. The Old Shanghai had fallen deep into ruin as memories of the "Paris of the Orient" had long since faded. But, the Chinese people reminded their leaders that ejecting the West from Shanghai after WWII was a political victory as well. They didn't want the Westerners, who they refer to in their language as "other", crawling all over the city again. So, in an unusual act of compromise, they choose to build literally from the ground up across the river in Pudong.

To achieve the massive demand for quality residential and commercial real estate, the Chinese had to import an entirely Western concept…the Skyscraper. Facing huge ambitions and a dearth of knowledgeable modern architects, they were forced to cross their commercial divide and partner with International firms in order to have their plans realized. Over the next ten years 25,000 construction sites opened up all over Shanghai. Yes, that's correct, 25,000. At one point, one quarter of all the steel, concrete and high-rise construction cranes in the world were in use in Pudong-Shanghai. An entire city of high-rises began to sprout like dandelions.

The Chinese plan for Shanghai
The area on the far side of the river with all the tall buildings
is the Pudong District

Naturally, when you talk skyscrapers, you eventually mention Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Smith and his associates were approached by the Chinese Government to design the trophy structure of the Pudong development, the Jin Mao Tower (a rough translation is "Good Gold"). Although SOM is recognized as the world authority, the firm was chosen in part because the Chinese Government had very specific laws prohibiting collaboration with any Western nation that did not already have a valid business interest in or connection with China. By building the Jin Mao Tower, the Chinese government was able to lure international investors to trade in their stock market, and subsequently build their new skyscraper city.

Pudong Shanghai in 2000 with the Chinese built Oriental Pearl TV tower
and the SOM designed Jin Mao Tower. Notice the Coca-Cola and NEC signs.
Ten years before this area was a swamp.

THE LATE 1990'S WERE A SIMILAR TIME OF REDEVELOPMENT IN AMERICA, if not in such Herculean measures. It is certainly notable in our two major urban centers of New York and Chicago. New York City was able to rebuild Times Square as a glowing conglomeration of mirrored skyscrapers coated with neon. And the economic boon of the Tech Age was particularly good to Chicago, which was already in the process of being completely overhauled from the industrial city of lore to the modern business center of the New Economy.

Mayor Richard M. Daley had a very ambitious plan to renovate and develop the three areas immediately adjacent to The Loop business district-the South Loop, River West/Near West, and the Near North districts---which had lost their identities when the railroads had left and the manufacturing plants relocated to the suburbs. The South Loop and Near West had become a wasteland of empty warehouses within spitting distance of what is arguably the world's most impressive skyline. The River districts suffered from the consequences of using the Chicago River as a sewer system, which necessitated developers building along the river to design everything facing away from the riverbank. Once the riverfront revitalization campaign began in the early '90's, the city found itself with three distinct new zones upon which to develop top dollar property that interacted with the river, rather than hid from it.

Conversely, the Near North district suffered from negligent development in the area outside Michigan Avenue, fallout from public housing developments like Cabrini Green, one of the country's most dangerous, poverty stricken areas, located adjacent to The Gold Coast, one of the three richest communities in the country. It was one of the stranger places on earth for a while as the polar extremes of society shared a common street. With the announced closing of Cabrini Green, and plans for a multi-billion dollar redevelopment of the area, the era of transition in Chicago began with a bellow heard in urban centers around the world.

The South Loop (L) and Streeterville (R) Districts
In Streeterville, all the buildings surrounding the crane are new

The plan in Chicago was to capitalize on the '90's exposure of "urban living", and redevelop all these old industrial areas into dense residential areas replete with high-rises and town homes. The result was a complete and total renovation. Mayor Daley, always being a man of impeccable class and integrity, led the charge by moving into the first new South Loop development. Around him sprang up the movement. By the year 2000, whole sections of the city had been brought back to life, and new skyscrapers sprang up alongside stalwarts like "Big John", The Sears Tower, and the Aon Tower (formerly the Standard Oil/Amoco Building), as pleasant compliment structures that made those megaliths seem that much more accessible.

Today, as you stare across the Chicago skyline, you suddenly understand where all those cranes the Chinese were using ended up. In all three surrounding districts a total of 50 new buildings have been added since 1998 with 40 of these high-rise developments currently under construction. Of those 40, only four are major commercial developments-the new 55-story UBS Tower, the 39-story Dearborn Center, the 37-story 191 N. Wacker Drive, and the 29-story ABN-Amro Plaza. The rest are all residential towers. And they are big residential towers, with 7 of them topping out over 50 stories.

Millennium Centre, Grand Plaza, 55 East Erie, and 400 N. LaSalle;a few of the many residential supertowers under construction.These four are within 5 blocks of each other. There are fourothers like these within the same area that are not pictured.

Here is a list of the more prominent projects:

River East Center (Streeterville) - 58 stories
Millennium Center (Near North) - 60 Stories
Grand Plaza (Near North) - 2 towers, 57 and 40 stories respectively
Park Millennium (Illinois Center) - 57 stories
2 East Erie (Near North) - 40 stories
55 East Erie (Near North) - 55 stories
The Fordham (Near North) - 52 stories
The Pinnacle (Near North) - 49 stories
1111 South Wabash (South Loop) - 35-40 stories
Skybridge - (Near North) - 40 stories
400 N. LaSalle (Near North) - 45 stories
Museum Park I and II (South Loop) - 30 Stories
The Heritage at Millennium Park - 47 Stories

This period of development over the last three years has been closely (and wrongly) compared with the late 80's construction boon in Chicago that resulted in a slew of commercial skyscrapers built as speculative stock and bond investments without secure tenants, which led to a commercial vacancy crisis as late as 1995 when most of the high-rise property in the Loop stood empty. But the late '90's economy not only solved that problem, it created a bit of a demand. The other major factor to consider was that these new buildings, as part of Daley's plan, needed to be approved by the City Council on Tall Buildings, unlike the 80's when Daley's predecessors, Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer, let anyone build anything they wanted as long as part of the package ended up in their pockets. These days, in order to begin construction, half the building needs to be sold in advance.

The old rail yards in the South Loop under redevelopment

How successful was this plan? Well, for example, the Millennium Centre in the Near North District was 94% sold the day the project was announced. This particular figure is comparable throughout all the new projects, and they are still trying to build more. The city has approved plans for another 20 odd 30-plus story residential high-rises. Another major factor to consider was the evolution of construction techniques which made it much more feasible to build huge residential towers than ever before.

But the argument against all this rampant vertical development, and the one held fairly strongly by Smith and other architects, is that these new breed of residential high rises offer little aesthetic value. For the pedestrian on the street navigating the long canyons of buildings, many of these structures have three blank uninviting sides, and one entrance, mostly because most follow an economical template that incorporates a parking structure for the first ten odd levels. Above this unsightly box rise the towers, and the towers themselves are built in the Trump mode, to be more pleasing from the inside looking out than vice-versa. The one notable exception are the three towers of The Fordham Group, who actually got together with the neighborhood associations to design aesthetically pleasing towers. These new residential towers also don't lend much in the way of skyline enhancement, regardless of the fact that the will transform the look of the North half of the Downtown area.

Shots taken of the massive redevelopment in the Near North District
from the corner of Grand & Dearborn of The Fordham, Millennium Centre,
Grand Plaza, 2 E. Erie and The Caravel, all brand new

It's interesting, when I was a boy, the only tall building in the Near North was the John Hancock Center, and people were still asking why they decided to put it "up in the middle of nowhere". Today, Chicago is just like Manhattan, supporting two separate dense clusters of skyscrapers on opposite ends of the Downtown area, each possessing a mixture of commercial and residential structures.

Now, 50 odd major tall buildings in four years are not exactly 25,000 in ten, but these were also distinctly different projects. The Chinese Government was starting from scratch and could do whatever it wanted because it owned everything. Chicago needed to sell, demolish, and redevelop land in the very heart of the city. That alone makes what happened in Chicago akin to a miracle. Also bear in mind Shanghai supports a metropolitan population of roughly 30 Million, as opposed to Chicago's paltry 10 Million, and every last one of them could potentially be conscripted to labor should the Chinese government decide they need their services. Building in a Capitalist society is a distinctly more complex endeavor.

But the real comparison is that Chicago invented the skyscraper, and Shanghai gave us the chance to perfect it. Manhattan and Hong Kong belong to a different category of cities, those needing tall buildings due to lack of space. Each has only about 25 square miles of land to build on (most of Hong Kong is mountainous). Conversely, both Chicago and Shanghai have an abundance of flat developable space upon which each respective city can expand. Can you imagine a city with over 230 square miles of skyscrapers? The Chinese can. They have no choice; they have almost 1.5 BILLION people to feed and house. Chicago will follow suit someday.

What the cities of Chicago and New York did with the guidance of their respective mayors was lay the foundation for the new urban renewal movement across the country. Some care to call the practice "gentrification", the removal of a low-income ghetto in favor of an upper-middle and upper class ghetto. This of course is an argument for another article altogether, but I will acknowledge that gentrification is an extremely heated subject in today's inner cities. Admittedly many of Daley and Giulliani's redevelopment tactics were tough, but ultimately when you drive through both cities what you see are two beautiful, modern urban habitats with clean streets and pretty buildings and people out enjoying their lives, no longer darting from building to building with their purses hidden under their shirts and coats. Life in the big cities is exponentially better than it was ten and fifteen years ago. How this will pan out in another twenty years, of course, remains to be seen.

Part II - Orwell and Architects Part IV - The Real Future and the Hype


Charles Shaw is a fourth generation Chicagoan. In the 1920's and 30's his paternal great-grandfather was Alderman of the 37th Ward (Austin District) and West Chicago Park Commissioner before the new Chicago Park District was formed in 1934. He is Politics and Non-Fiction Editor for 3am Magazine, and writes a daily sociopolitical column, SIGNS OF THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION - A Daily Dose of Doltry. 2003 will see the release of his debut novel, Unfinished Portraits, and in 2004 he will release The Politics of Recreation: Ten Political Battles that Shaped Chicago Public Land through Lake Claremont Press.

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