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What's Next for Santiago Calatrava's Troubled Chicago Spire?

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When the Chicago Spire project—a plan for a 2,000-foot high, sexily curving, starchitect-designed tower calculated to bring a new global prominence to the city—suddenly returned to the spotlight last year, it seemed symbolic. From its effusively celebrated proposal to its sudden crash in 2008, the project's development not-so-subtly paralleled the country's financial optimism, risk-taking, and hasty downfall.

First proposed in 2005, the Spire's development gained attention from the neighborhood all the way to the international level. An apparent vanity project, the luxury development was designed with dazzle in mind. Mayor Daley praised it as environmentally friendly. Influential Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin followed it closely, with excitement and occasional reservations. In New York, Donald Trump dismissed the building with typical paranoia as a budding target for terrorists. Coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian ranged from amused to awe-inspired, anticipating the building as the "city's snazziest," one that "stretches the limit."

By 2008, the picture was starker: in October of that year, Shelbourne Development shut down the project, with its primary lender, Anglo Irish Bank, facing nationalization. A flurry of lawsuits followed: from architect Santiago Calatrava, who placed an $11.34 million lien on the Spire in the hope of being paid, and from Bank of America, which filed a $4.92 million lawsuit in an attempt to collect on unpaid construction loans. Shelbourne was drowning—after months of falling behind on rent, even NBC Tower, the home of the developer's downtown office, started the process of bringing an eviction lawsuit against the company.

Another five years later—the Spire as good as dead and buried, having already dug its own 76-foot-deep grave—and the project has resurfaced. Ireland's National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), holder of the Spire's debt, auctioned it off in May 2013. Later, Related Midwest, which recently completed another project next to the Spire site, acquired the debt. Related promptly sued Shelbourne for more than $95 million in guarantees that had been made as part of the original project. The court cases have finally come to something approximating a settlement after a new player—Northbrook-based Atlas Apartment Holdings—promised a $135 million investment this year. Garrett Kelleher, the Irish-born executive chairman for Shelbourne, will maintain control.

Kelleher, whose own money (to the tune of $188 million) is tied up in the project, has been tight-lipped about the affair. Shelbourne Development's webpage, despite proclaiming the Spire to be a project that will "redefine the renowned Chicago skyline by 2014," seems as dead as the project itself looked just a few years ago. Its Chicago-based phone number is disconnected; emails to its general US-based email address as well as its Ireland-based media contact return undeliverable. With a deadline of August 31 to provide a reorganization plan and October 31 for it to take effect (after which, if no payments are made, Related gets the land), Kelleher is once again in a race against time.

The Spire made epic promises at the time of its pitch—a musical backdrop of Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony" even accompanied the unveiling of the building's final design—and collapsed just as profoundly. Now it has reemerged in a new economic and architectural climate, dogged by the same questions that surrounded it at its inception: can it be built, and if so, should it?

An ambitious undertaking from the outset, the idea of the Spire—or at least a tall tower of architect Santiago Calatrava's design—originated with Christopher T. Carley in 2002. Carley, the chairman of the Fordham Company, conceived of a building that would refocus the world's architectural attention once more on Chicago—and bear the name of his company.

Carley approached Calatrava during the architect's visit to Chicago in spring 2002, and the original iteration of the building—which included a hotel, condominiums, and a broadcast antenna, and soared to a height of 115 stories—passed the Chicago Plan Commission, Zoning Committee, and Chicago City Council in March 2006. While the developers expected some local backlash over the building's height, they dispelled these fears by emphasizing its svelte figure.

Still, residents of the proposed Spire's Streeterville neighborhood were concerned about congestion, and Shelbourne embarked on a significant redesign to address these and other worries in December 2006. The new design no longer had a hotel (originally planned for the building's bottom 20 floors) or a broadcast antenna. The parking structure, previously an unattached eyesore, would be integrated into the building as underground parking. Kelleher and Calatrava proved ingratiating partners; Gail Spreen, President of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR), fondly remembers Kelleher's Irish cadence in concluding that the outside parking structure would be "rude."

The evolution of Santiago Calatrava's Spire design. From left to right, the 2005, 2006, and 2007 iterations.

Along with the antenna's removal, the redesign concentrated the building's spiraling aspect toward its bottom three-quarters, tapering out to a straightened top. The bluntness of the redesign prompted the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, Blair Kamin, to mock it in an op-ed a few days later as the Spire's "buzz cut." Readers wrote in to suggest painting the Spire red and calling it the "Twizzler Tower."

Again, Shelbourne was adaptable, responding quickly to the public's distaste for iteration #2. The company solicited public opinions and turned around another redesign in January 2007—this one the current design, spiraling smoothly from the bottom to its narrowed, pointed top. In spring 2007, a year after its first design was approved, the Chicago Plan Commission, Zoning Committee, and City Council approved Spire version 3.0.

While this was the last official redesign, Antony Wood, Executive Director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats, can't conceive of the Spire's being built—if it is indeed built—without the team heading back to the drawing board yet again. "There's no way they're going to pick up a building that was designed 10 years ago and continue on that way," he told me, citing major changes in the market. While the Spire was conceived during the condo boom, the understandably conservative trend is now in rentals.

While the tip of the 1 percent—the Spire's target audience—remained unscathed by the Great Recession, Chicago's downtown luxury market did not. Due to a range of factors, from Millennial wariness at home ownership to higher loans needed for down payments on condos, rental apartment construction has exploded over the past few years, and more downtown Chicago residents are choosing rentals over condos. For a while, increase in demand led to a steep climb in prices, with luxury apartment costs rising 30 percent from 2009 to 2012. While demand has slowed and rent has begun to drop, the real question is whether the housing market has settled enough to urge residents into investing in condos.

Even with investor interest, the Spire faces an uphill battle in its hopes of achieving profitability. Projected to cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion to complete, the Spire's condos would need to sell at around $800 to $1,000 per square foot to be economically viable. While this might be the norm for New York's ultra luxury market, Chicago's median is closer to $300 per square foot. Living in the Spire would be exceptionally costly.

To meet the cost, Shelbourne originally marketed heavily to overseas investors, who had purchased roughly half of the third of condos sold by June 2008, according to Shelbourne. Marketing the condos as investments, Shelbourne took the unusual tack of promising buyers a 7.5 percent return on their purchase price for two years before renting out the units—encouraging short-term leases and high mobility.

While the appeal of luxury condos to wealthy foreigners is apparent, what's less so is whether a stock of foreign-owned luxury units is beneficial for Chicago. "It doesn't seem clear that that's a thing that we should want," Daniel Kay Hertz, urban policy student at the Harris School and writer of the "City Notes" blog, explained.

In Manhattan, foreign buyers own about 50 percent of new development condos and 30 to 40 percent of the overall condo and townhouse market, a trend that has generated controversy and anger in locals. Blamed for spiking housing costs and shrinking housing space in Manhattan, the condos often stand empty, functioning as piggy banks.

While Chicago is a global city, it still lacks the business and political centrality of New York, and one massive structure is unlikely to set into motion a craze of foreign-driven luxury condo acquisition. But boosting housing appeal among foreigners does support Rahm Emanuel in his quest to make Chicago a more global city, which began with his campaign to host the NATO and G8 Summits in 2012 and manifested more recently with a push for nonstop service from Chicago O'Hare to Dubai and a request that the Chicago Council on Global Affairs devise a "foreign policy" for the city. On the tourism side, the city is aiming to hit 55 million annual visitors by 2020, and a glitzy luxury building, added to other projects underway, can only help that effort.

Adding another supertall building, designed to rise above the Freedom Tower and steal the skyscraper mantle back from New York, would have the more psychological benefit of keeping up Chicago's relevance.

When the building was conceived a little over 10 years ago, there was still something of a struggle between the United States and Asia over the future of tall buildings. The world's five tallest buildings were erected in a flurry of ambitious construction beginning in 2004—all in the Middle East or East Asia. With a swelling population and an eye toward the future, the motivation was part aspiration, part practicality. Meant more than anything as a statement, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is more than twice the height of Dubai's next tallest structure.

"These are buildings that are built for far more than economic return. They're built to put a city on the map," Wood said, noting that the distinction of having the world's tallest buildings will probably never return to the U.S. If the Spire were to be finished tomorrow, it would be the second tallest building in the world at a clean 2,000 feet. Yet a slew of projects currently under construction—from the staggeringly tall (at nearly 3,300 feet) Kingdom Tower in Jeddah to a cluster of mixed-use buildings in China—would knock it back down toward double-digit status within just a few years.

The locus of supertall construction may have shifted to Asia, but the spiritual heart of such towering aspiration remains, in many ways, Chicago. Powerhouse design firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which began in Chicago, designed and engineered the Burj Khalifa, and Adrian Smith, who was the chief architect behind the project and is now with his own firm, is also the architect behind Kingdom Tower. Skidmore Owings & Merrill also designed Nanjing's Zifeng Tower and is behind One World Trade, set to surpass the Willis Tower upon its completion this year. Even the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the organization responsible for officially designating a skyscraper's true height, is based in Chicago.

Still, with a range of supertall structures slated to go up across the Eastern Hemisphere over the next decade and Chicago's commercial and economic status several steps below New York's, the strength of the Spire's appeal to investors and buyers is hard to guess.

A starchitect of global stature, the building's designer Santiago Calatrava is the Spire's most enticing draw. Ask anyone excited at the prospect of the Spire and it isn't the height or the location or the luxury that ultimately appeals—it's the designer. "You'd be buying a Calatrava in the same way you might be buying a Picasso," explained Wood.

Carley and later Kelleher pursued Calatrava feverishly, and the architect was a major boon during the design process. He attended neighborhood meetings and helped to sell the concept of the building. Carley spoke "rapturously" of Calatrava at an early town hall meeting, according to a 2008 feature in Chicago Magazine, and then-alderman Burton Natarus was "enchanted" by the architect, asking him to sign a book. Everyone was starry-eyed over the soft-spoken Spaniard.

"These are buildings that are built for far more than economic return. They're built to put a city on the map."—Antony Wood, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats

In the decade since the project was conceived, however, Calatrava's popularity has come under fire. In September 2013, the New York Times published an incriminating roundup of the structural failures that have beset Calatrava's completed projects, including oversights on safety features and usability and the warping of buildings' facades. Most of these Calatrava projects have, even more worryingly for the Spire's hopes, been substantially over budget. Calatrava is thus both the project's greatest asset and potentially its biggest risk.

While Calatrava has designed buildings all across Europe—including many in Italy, Spain, and Switzerland—as well as in Latin America and Australia, his work in the United States has been limited thus far: the Milwaukee Art Museum (finished in 2001), the Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay in Redding, California (finished in 2004), and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas, Texas (completed in 2012). He currently has a number of projects in the works, including a few in New York City. The Spire would be his first for Chicago.

Typically known for smaller, squatter, transportation-related structures like bridges and airports, Calatrava's design for the Spire does bear some resemblance to his design for Malmo, Sweden's "Turning Torso," the tallest building in Scandinavia. Like the project's little sister, the building twists upward in a spiral, reaching a comparatively meager 623 feet, a little over a quarter the size of the proposed Spire. Completed in 2005, "Turning Torso" sets an ominous precedent for the Spire—the project was originally intended to cost 550 million Swedish crowns, and ended up costing anywhere from 850 million to 1.5 billion crowns.

No skyscraper is going to be built without any opposition, and Antony Wood heard a range of arguments against the Spire's construction, from the practical—worries about the congestion the project would bring to Streeterville—to the contrarian. "A lot of people didn't like it because it was different from the regular Chicago building," he said, noting the femininity of the project's sleek curves. Some even objected to the Spire as a concept Chicagoans should "mature beyond," as if aspirational height and design were architecturally immature, meant only for burgeoning world cities to pursue.

"I was absolutely shocked to see that there was a pretty vocal backlash against this project," Wood said. Coming from Britain, Wood admired what he considered to be the American approach to construction—a drive to build high, ambitious structures that scraped the sky and could house an army. The style was a stark contrast to London's own conservative approach.

Wood witnessed hand-wringing over the Spire's potential impact on Chicago staples like the Wrigley Building and the Hancock Center. Befuddled, he showed little patience for the stubborn romanticism of traditional Chicagoans. The Sears Corporation left its eponymous tower more than 20 years ago, so why not adjust to the new, more accurate name? And why remain in a state of arrested development?

[Graphics by Suze Myers.]

The zoning on the Spire's site is set to expire later this year, and it will be subject to another planned development review. Despite the span of time without action on the project, SOAR remains committed to helping see it through. The organization's Vice President, Mario Hollemans, sent the following statement: "SOAR supports the renewed Spire development project; however that does not mean our job is done. SOAR will continue to closely monitor the development and review the plans to ensure the structure and landscape are in the best interest of the residents of Streeterville."

SOAR's Spreen says that it doesn't matter how large or dramatic the Spire is. "We're not against development—we're for great development." SOAR is ambitious; if the Spire turns out not to be possible, Spreen says, they'd prefer to keep the space vacant until something equally distinctive can be brought in.

With its prime location and views, Streeterville has become a unique area for development. High-end hotels and residences have filled the north end, and institutional development, including Northwestern University's medical campus, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, occupies the central portion.

The southern reaches of Streeterville, where the Spire's hole in the ground is located and where it would eventually rise, are still in the process of development. The prospect of adding hundreds of new luxury residential sites to the neighborhood is tantalizing for Spreen and many of the area's other residents. Spreen, also a real estate broker, is quick to point out that the Spire would raise property values. It would also help with the neighborhood's somewhat skewed mix of properties. "We don't just want to live in a medical campus," she explains. "It all has to be a balance."

While the Spire appears to be back on track, assuming Shelbourne can find investors and pay off its debts, the earlier soaring enthusiasm for the project has softened into a guarded, skeptical optimism. Chicago is a city that's seen big promises—the 2016 Olympic Games, the 2012 G8 Summit, the 2008 Chicago Spire—fall through.

The psychological impact of the Spire's rebirth—adding a new bauble to the skyline—is unfortunately immeasurable, though the right people could deduce its economic impact in dollars and cents (the consensus seems to be that it would be positive or neutral). At this point, the only people who matter are the mysterious potential investors: those willing to pony up to live in Calatrava's Spire.

UPDATE: This article originally stated that Atlas Apartment Holdings had invested $135 million in the Spire project this year; in fact, Atlas promised the investment but it has not yet been made.

· Chicago Spire coverage [Curbed Chicago]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed National]