2,000-foot TV tower may pierce skyline
By Thomas A. Corfman and Blair Kamin
Tribune staff reporters
Published October 25, 2005
Imagine this addition to Chicago's fabled skyline: a futuristic, tweezer-shaped broadcast tower looming 2,000 feet over the lakefront as one of the world's tallest structures.
The digital age may soon bring this sleek, scissors-like conversation piece to the city, within clear view of the tourists at Navy Pier who will either ooh with awe or laugh with disbelief.
To be designed by prominent architect Cesar Pelli, the tower would help redefine Chicago's horizon. Rising above the skyline between the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower, it would usher in a new era of daring, ultramodern architecture for the city. Another sensation would be a proposed Santiago Calatrava-designed skyscraper shaped like a drill bit.
The $300 million Pelli tower would function as a platform for local television stations to mount their new high-definition broadcasting antennas.
Instead of building a conventional building that reserves roof space for antennas, the developers--J. Paul Beitler and LR Development Co.--are proposing the lower-cost option of a needle-thin, triple-spired tripod. At the top would be several floors for restaurants and an observation deck, and at the base would be a 400-car garage. The tapered space in between would be largely open, except for six large beams connecting the spires.
"It is a very intelligent structure," said Pelli, in a telephone interview from his office in New Haven, Conn. He compared the structure to a ship's mast, saying it will be "a very handsome form next to the water."
The proposed broadcast tower, which would be located along Lake Shore Drive between Illinois Street and Grand Avenue, would jump past the CN Tower in Toronto, which at 1,815 feet holds the title as the world's tallest free-standing broadcast tower.
But comparing tall structures is complicated, so much so that it can seem the height of absurdity.
Not a building
For one, the structure could not lay claim to becoming one of the world's tallest buildings because it isn't technically a building--its structure would not be filled with floors as in a conventional skyscraper.
Currently, the world's tallest building is the 1,671-foot Taipei 101 in Taiwan, but other superstructures are under development.
Among broadcast antennas, the proposed lakefront structure is taller than the CN Tower but would fall short of a guywire-supported radio mast antenna in North Dakota, as well as an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, according to reports.
Beitler, president and chief executive of the Chicago-based real estate firm that bears his name, confirmed the broad outlines of the project, which does not yet have city approval.
"We are not out to have the tallest building in the world, or the tallest anything," Beitler said. "That's simply silly because somebody will come along and build something taller. There have been a lot of tombstones put up for people who proposed the `tallest.' The problem has always been financeability, and we have financing."
The project would be driven by agreements, not yet signed, with local television stations, which are preparing for a shift to exclusively high-definition broadcasting, expected to be required in 2009.
Beitler declined to comment on the status of any talks with broadcasters. Local television stations currently broadcast HDTV and traditional analog broadcast signals from the 1,451-foot Sears Tower in the West Loop and the 1,127-foot John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue, where they lease space.
But television executives have long wanted a third option that they would control, and in the late 1990s even floated a proposal for a free-standing antenna mast that would have been located either in the suburbs or on the West Side.
The selling point of the new tower is that high-definition signals need to emanate from the highest, least obstructed point.
Still, the new tower is not a done deal.
In addition to tough negotiations with broadcasters, the latest proposal will likely be an even tougher sell to Streeterville residents, many of whom already feel overwhelmed by new high-rise construction and suffocated by traffic generated by Navy Pier.
The proposed site, which is zoned for a 610-foot structure, is just a few blocks north of a riverfront parcel where another developer has proposed a 115-story condominium/hotel to be designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that would also soar to 2,000 feet.
As originally proposed in July, the Calatrava tower did not include broadcast facilities. But developer Christopher Carley said he may eventually add broadcast transmission facilities to his project, called Fordham Spire.
"As the time goes on, there is going to be more and more demand for these high antennas, not only high definition," said Carley, chairman of Chicago-based Fordham Co.
He said he has not had any discussions with local broadcasters, and didn't think the newly proposed broadcast tower would affect his project.
Whether the lakefront could accommodate two tall towers so close by would depend on neighborhood residents, who Carley expected would raise several concerns to the broadcast tower.
"It's not the height per se," he said. "It's more traffic, density, blocked views and shadows."
Beitler said the Planning Department has been briefed on the plans.
"I think it would be very dynamic to have two great architects like this put up buildings so close to each other," said Beitler. "I think they are so completely different from each other it would be interesting."
The proposed broadcast tower would be on a 41,000-square-foot site owned by a joint venture that includes LR Development, a Chicago luxury residential firm, and JER Partners, a Virginia investment firm.
Thomas Weeks, president of LR Development, declined comment.
Beitler is a veteran office developer whose projects include the Pelli-designed 181 W. Madison St. and 131 S. Dearborn St. In the late 1980s Beitler and Lee Miglin proposed a "world's tallest" tower for a Loop site, but the deal ended in foreclosure.
Beitler's partner, LR Development, also is co-owner of the site that developer Carley would buy for the Calatrava tower.
Name should be the Why Tower
Loony, daffy, thin and chunky: Not a pretty sight as viewed from pier or anywhere
By Blair Kamin
Tribune architecture critic
Published October 25, 2005
There have been lots of loony ideas floated for the Chicago skyline, but the proposed 2,000-foot-tall broadcast tower that two Chicago developers want to build along the lakefront, at least in its present form, appears to be among the looniest.
Despite its futuristic curves, this isn't Buck Rogers architecture. It's Duck Dodgers design, utterly daffy, a cartoonish version of tomorrow. As is, the plan would inflict upon the skyline a scaleless hybrid that would be half-building, half-broadcast tower, but nowhere near a satisfying whole.
The plan is far less poetic than Santiago Calatrava's proposed twisting tower, which could rise as high as 2,000 feet a few blocks to the south, and far less powerful than the X-braced John Hancock Center, which offers an unsurpassed synthesis of blue-collar might and black-tie elegance.
One has to wonder why on earth would Mayor Richard M. Daley and his city planners ever take seriously this "Tall Tower"? (Now there's a scintillating name.) Perhaps because there's a towering amount of clout behind it.
Among the developers are J. Paul Beitler, who joined with partner Lee Miglin to unveil the 1,914-foot Miglin-Beitler Tower, a project killed by the early 1990s building bust. This time, Beitler is partnering with LR Development Co., which has built in silk-stocking districts around town.
The developers signed up New Haven, Conn., architect Cesar Pelli and New York City structural engineer Charles Thornton. They designed the Miglin-Beitler Tower as well as the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, which in 1996 stripped Sears Tower of its world's tallest building title.
The proposed broadcast tower, on the west side of Lake Shore Drive between Illinois Street and Grand Avenue, is, at least, conceptually intriguing.
Traditionally, a broadcast tower like Toronto's CN Tower has been the equivalent of an olive on a toothpick--a giant post with a bulge near the top where restaurants and observation decks went.
But this tower would be more like a tripod, with three sets of paired legs and a giant void between them. The legs, whose concrete would be exposed or covered in metal, would taper as they rose. Big concrete beams every 10 to 15 stories would stabilize them. Somewhere around 1,600 feet or 1,700 feet, the legs would form a platform for the "candelabra" of three tapering broadcast antennas, as Gregg Jones, an associate principal at Pelli's firm and a design leader on the project, explained.
The three-legged format is considered ideal for transmitting high-definition television signals. Three antennas. Three legs. It's simple, pragmatic and efficient. Very Chicago. The void between the legs would do more than reduce the wind's force on the tower. It might allow the owner to someday create a plug-in city in the sky, filling parts of the void with offices, condominiums or a hotel, though Beitler said such a plan is not under consideration.
But the design, which places a 400-space parking garage at the tower's base and three restaurants and an observation deck near the top, works neither as a stand-alone object nor as a part of the cityscape.
The tower simultaneously manages to be thin, which is good, and chunky, which isn't. Whatever benefits the concrete legs offer in structural efficiency--a supertall tower of three sides, not the typical four--they look dreadfully bulky. The problem, on a fundamental level, has to do with scale.
One of the reasons the Hancock is such a triumph is that its X-braces break down the monolithic form of its tapering obelisk. But here, there is nothing to mediate between the enormous legs and the teeny, curvy, glass-sheathed forms of the garage and observation deck. Even if the tower is sheathed in concrete, Pelli and crew will have to labor mightily to give it a human scale at ground level. If it is done in exposed concrete, it may look like a rocket launchpad, far too crude for its showcase lakefront site.
Oh, yes, the lakefront.
Is it just me or is anybody else terrified by the prospect of two 2,000-foot towers rising within a few blocks of each other along Lake Michigan? In all likelihood, only one will be built, or maybe neither. But if we have to choose, Calatrava's would be far superior, its dazzling piece of skyline sculpture easily besting this clunky sculptural wannabe.
Why must this tower go here? Simply because the developers have the land?
A prospective synergy with Navy Pier hardly justifies the placement. Yes, tourists might head from the pier to the tower's restaurant and observation deck. But there's one problem: They'd have to look at this rocket launch pad from the pier. And so would the rest of us.
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune