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Chicago’s Committee on Design is helping shape developments

Chicago developers worried last year that construction projects would face bureaucratic snarls after city planners added a layer to the approval process. Builders already had to run a gantlet of officials on several commissions and committees, as well as City Council. Some now had to face the Committee on Design, a panel of experts who would critique designs and press developers to make improvements.

“The idea of having another step like that was concerning for us,” said Jeff Head, vice president of development for The Habitat Co., a Chicago-based developer that in March presented, along with its partner P3 Markets, plans to the committee for a 10-story residential and commercial building at 43rd Street and the Green Line on the South Side.

But Head’s fears did not come true, he added. The new committee, an all-volunteer group of architects, urban planners, designers and developers, praised Habitat’s development, calling it a refreshing addition to a neighborhood with little new investment.

Members did advise some changes, such as crafting a new and more prominent residential entrance, all relatively easy adjustments, and the partners’ updated plan secured approval in September from the Chicago Plan Commission.

“The Committee on Design was pitched to developers as a way to accelerate the approval process, and I felt that in our case that’s what happened,” according to Head. “It didn’t disrupt the timeline.”

Although none of the several dozen projects analyzed by the committee since its first public monthly meeting in August 2021 have started construction, most have marched steadily toward full City Council approval and several developers are ready to begin construction over the next few months.

That shows the 24-member committee is doing its job, according to city planners. It’s helping shape what Chicagoans will experience when they walk through new developments, and the committee’s influence is likely to grow as it focuses attention on the most important projects. That includes new towers in Fulton Market and affordable housing developments in neighborhoods historically ignored by investors.

“By and large, the projects that go before the Committee on Design are getting their signoffs earlier,” said Gerardo Garcia, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s planning department. “And we are elevating design excellence for all, and for every community,”

The brainchild of Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox, each month the committee holds an online meeting, focusing on several proposals picked by planning staff, split roughly between major private developments, often for Fulton Market, and affordable developments, often part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative.

Committee members say the goal isn’t to block development, and they most often recommend refinements, rather than wholesale revisions.

“We’re really not there to be an aesthetic police force, to decide whether a facade is red or blue, or to put obstacles in front of people or their projects,” said Brian Lee, consulting partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “All of us on the committee have experience with the approval process, are sensitive to it, and are concerned about issues such as costs and scheduling.”

The committee’s mostly modest recommendations mean it probably won’t revolutionize Chicago architecture, according to member Reed Kroloff, dean of Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture. But it does push applicants to think more about how their buildings will impact surrounding neighborhoods, and whether they can include more public goods such as parks.

“What we typically ask a developer is, ‘what are you doing to maximize the public benefit of that property?’ ” Kroloff said. “Most of the conversations have been very convivial, very friendly, and a lot of the architects have jumped in and engaged as they realize that this isn’t something put in place to make their lives more difficult. I also think a fair number of developers surprised themselves by enjoying it as well.”

George Baird, a former dean of the University of Toronto — John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, said he saw the same thing about 17 years ago when he joined the then-new design review committee established by Waterfront Toronto, the nonprofit that directs new development on the city’s waterfront.

“In the beginning, people were wary of it, but over time the sophisticated developers have really decided to just roll with it,” he said.

Chicago planners recruited their committee members, all serving two-year terms, in spring 2021 from a range of disciplines, Garcia said, to ensure feedback on all aspects of development. Membership includes landscape architect Hana Ishikawa of Site Design Group, Andre Brumfield, an urban planner and principal at Gensler and Jeanne Gang, architect of Chicago’s Aqua Tower.

Garcia emphasized that committee members make recommendations rather than enforce mandates. Staff then sits down with developers and architects to revise plans.

Kroloff advises developers to see going before the committee as an opportunity.

“It’s free advice from a group of experts and concerned citizens,” he said.

John Law, a landscape architect and assistant commissioner of the city’s planning department, said it’s best if design teams meet the committee before plans are set in stone.

“We want to get projects early in the review process so the committee can have some influence on the outcome,” he said.

The committee wasn’t able to influence developer Trammell Crow’s plan for a pair of Fulton Market skyscrapers, meant to help create a life sciences hub, as much as some members would have liked. It went before the group during its first meeting in August 2021 and was the first major private development critiqued.

After patiently listening to the development team outline a proposal for an office tower on a podium at 315 N. May St. that twisted up to 410 feet, a 369-foot residential tower just to the north at 1112 W. Carroll Ave., as well as a public park, Philip Enquist, consulting partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and several other members asked whether it was possible to flip the two structures, placing the taller on the North Side, opening the park to more sunlight.

Looking south, an aerial view of the empty lot and one-story building at 1112 W. Carroll Ave. and 315 N. May St., the future sites of a two-building complex with offices and residential.

“Most of the green space in this project appears to be behind that taller tower, and as a result, it’s in shadow for much of the day,” said Casey Jones, principal, Perkins & Will.

John Carlson, principal of Trammell Crow, said his team could not make such significant changes. Company officials had already spoken to potential tenants for 315 N. May St. and were told they strongly preferred the southern site, so flipping the buildings would upend the business plan, trumping any worries about the park.

Trammell Crow declined to comment for this article.

“Maybe flipping the buildings was a step too far,” Garcia said.

But Carlson did respond enthusiastically to a more modest proposal from Gang, who asked whether Trammell Crow could redo the office building’s podium and shift some of aboveground parking, perhaps below ground or to elsewhere on the site, potentially exposing the park to more sunlight and bringing tenants down closer to the park.

“I understand why that site is attractive for the life sciences,” Gang said. “But I’m not a huge fan of podiums.”

“That’s a great comment,” Carlson said. “We’ll think about that and challenge ourselves to do that.”

City Council approved Trammell Crow’s updated plan in November 2021. The company largely followed Gang’s recommendations, putting the parking for 315 N. May St. underground, and reduced the building’s bulk to allow more sunlight into the park.

Underground parking is typically more expensive, said Garcia, but in this case it’s worth it.

“It created more publicly accessible space, and that’s a benefit to the project and the community as a whole,” he said.

David Block, director of development for Evergreen Real Estate Group, said such advice is why his firm was eager to get its proposals in front of the committee. Evergreen and its partner LUCHA even volunteered to present in October 2021 its plan for Encuentro Square, a 196-unit affordable housing development on the western end of The 606.

“I knew if we waited much longer, we’d be too far down the road,” Block said. “I actually think prepping for the Committee on Design is a good exercise for developers’ architectural teams. It forces them to put their ideas out there to a very sophisticated audience.”

Spirited conversations often result, according to Kroloff, but it’s nothing new for architects. Peer review is how everybody learns when they enter the profession.

“Every architect, every landscape architect and every planner has been inculcated in this process from the first moment when they stepped into school,” he said. “The committee is simply bringing that to Chicago’s design process.”

Developers with the INVEST South/West program may have an advantage when they meet with the Committee on Design, according to 548 Capital CEO A.J. Patton, because they receive so much scrutiny.

He presented several such projects this year, including Galleria 89, a mixed-use development at 8840 S. Commercial Ave., which will have 58 units in two buildings, including the rehab of a historic structure, and 3831 W. Chicago Ave., a 60-unit, block-long development in Humboldt Park that will include almost 8,000 square feet of commercial space.

Galleria 89, a mixed-use development, is among the Chicago projects that have been reviewed by the Committee on Design.
A historic building, the future home of Galleria 89, on South Commercial Avenue, in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2022.

Before the committee eyeballs INVEST South/West proposals, the city conducts a design review, and developers must win a competition against other teams vying for the project, as well as hold several community meetings.

“The INVEST South/West projects have already been through the wringer, picked over and scrutinized,” Patton said.

He doesn’t mind the extra analysis.

“The city is heavily subsidizing these projects, so I think it’s very appropriate for it to have a lot of influence on the final product,” he said. “I don’t get to be snooty about public engagement.”

Significant adjustments were made on other Fulton Market projects. CRG and Shapack Partners eliminated a bridge between two portions of 170 N. Green St., their proposal for a mixed-use complex with 275 residences, 350,000 square feet of office and a hotel, after committee members pointed out during the February meeting it might overshadow a public plaza. The updated plan was approved by the Chicago Plan Commission and City Council in April. And partners GSP and Golub & Co. agreed to include more sidewalk space and add retail to the base of their 362-unit 301 S. Green St. after meeting with committee members in April.

“I just want to go on record and say we are very happy with this process,” said Lee Golub, managing principal of Golub & Co., during the Oct. 20 Plan Commission meeting. CPC approved the update.

The Committee on Design is still considered a pilot project, but after a little more than a year, planners are expanding its role, according to Garcia. Instead of simply holding public meetings to comment on proposals, members now also function as an informal brain trust for the department, advising staff on a wider range of projects, and may begin meeting with design teams even earlier to further smooth out the approval process.

Baird said Waterfront Toronto’s design group also expanded its role over the past 17 years, and now reviews about five proposals each month, giving each an up-or-down vote.

“The process in Toronto has evolved over time, so it’s not surprising that’s happening in Chicago as well,” he said.

“This is a new thing for the development community, to have us as a resource,” said Gang during the February meeting. “We’re trying to open this up and really talk about it, so our city can continue to lead in design and architecture.”



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