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The John Hancock Center Atrium: Are the owners trying to fix something that ain't broke?

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The first mention of the proposed change came in a Chicago Tribune article written with bouncy cheer--as if to say, thank God, at long last, they're gonna jazz up the old bag on North Michigan Avenue.

"Hancock to gussy up for birthday," read the headline over the June 15 story, which went on to specify plans by the property's owner (the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company) to replace the courtyard that fronts the John Hancock Center with a "$20 million glass and marble three-story atrium."

"From day one, the building's problem was that the ground floor never really worked right," says John Levy, executive vice president of John Hancock Properties Inc., the insurance company's real estate subsidiary. "Access to the first floor is really poor. You come into the main entrance and you have a circuitous path to the escalators. The lobby is also nondescript. When you walk in, you don't feel like you're walking into the lobby of the fifth largest building in the world."

So they proposed the atrium. Inside, escalators would carry pedestrians to the second level, much as they do in the Water Tower shopping mall just down the street. "By enclosing the existing plaza, tenants of the building and visitors will be able to enjoy the space year-round," Levy told the Tribune.

However, not all readers of that article shared Levy's enthusiasm for the proposal. There is, in fact, a fierce and dogged battle going on between Hancock, a powerful corporation based in Boston, and residents of Streeterville, one of the city's wealthiest and best-organized neighborhoods.

"My husband heard about the plans from his barber, who has a shop in the Hancock building," says Carol French, a resident of the building and member of its condominium-owners association. "When he told me, I didn't believe him. I said, 'Oh no, they'd never do that, That's just a crazy rumor. Who in their right mind would disfigure a landmark?'"

"What they propose to do is like plopping a pimple on a landmark," adds George Sikokis, president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, a prominent community group in the area. "Worse than that, by taking away more open space, they're turning Michigan Avenue into a canyon of high rises or a marble mausoleum. I've lived here 22 years and let me tell you, if we can't walk down Michigan Avenue on a Saturday afternoon because of all the traffic, then it's too much."

Sikokis and French argue that no property owner should be allowed to desecrate a landmark like the Hancock building, particularly given the rock-solid opposition from nearby residents. Levy respectfully disagrees. "We have always been a good corporate citizen," he says. "So, I have met with residents; we have changed our design with an eye to accommodate the community. We are trying to find some common ground that will make most people happy. But we believe that what we finally approve will be within the guidelines of city zoning laws."

In many ways, the dispute repeats issues first aired when the Hancock was built in the late 1960s. Developers had sensed a back-to-the-city movement of wealthy empty-nesters and young professionals, and seized the stretch of North Michigan Avenue that runs roughly south to north from the Chicago River to Oak Street as the ideal setting for high-rent apartments and upscale boutiques.

Hancock, designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was perhaps the least offensive of the buildings erected at that time. Almost instantaneously, it became a Chicago landmark, praised by such architectural critics as Carl Condit for its practical and attractive use of space.

"[Hancock's] first proposal was a conventional one consisting of two prismatic towers, one of forty-five stories for offices, the other of seventy stories for apartments, both about equal in measured overall height," Condit wrote in his book Chicago, 1930-70: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology. "But the problem of siting the two with respect to each other and the surrounding area in order to insure privacy, quiet, and unobstructed views raised insurmountable difficulties. Rejecting all the alternatives because of inherent disadvantages, the architects finally hit on the novel scheme of placing the apartment tower on top of the office, and the office tower in turn on top of all the public spaces. The result is a megastructure on the grand scale, a microcity embracing activities of work, dwelling, shopping, recreation, and transportation in which another hierarchical distribution of functions by floor dictated the uniformly tapering envelope. By extending the height the architects reduced the occupancy of the site to somewhat less than half the area for the building proper."

The building was 100 stories tall, with more than two million square feet of commercial, residential, retail, parking, and utility space. It took five years to build and opened in 1970. Within weeks all of its 700 or so rental units (now condominiums) were taken.

Despite the shower of attention and praise, the building had its critics. Condit praised the building's design, but questioned its "location and its consequences for the urban ecology." The Hancock is "grossly out of scale" with nearby buildings, Condit wrote, "dominating them by its physical presence and by its very shadow. . . . The owners, quite understandably, wanted a site of maximum prestige, and North Michigan Avenue has no competitor in this respect; yet the [location] is plainly an error when measured against the complex of urban functions that a hundred story megastructure cannot help but disturb. . . . If a building of such magnitude belongs anywhere, it is on the west side of the [Loop], along Wacker Drive, or on rescued rail property to the south where it can form a backdrop to the city's homogeneous skyscraper masses."

Other residents complained when the building's managers topped it with a halo of lights, which led to the death of about 500 migrating birds, according to W.J. Beecher, director emeritus of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. "When there is an overcast sky, migrating birds, bewildered by fog, head for the nearest bright light," Beecher wrote in a recent letter to the Tribune.

The criticism went unheeded, and city planners OK'd other developments along Michigan Avenue that were even less distinctive and far uglier than the Hancock. The attitude then (as now) was that cash-starved Chicago cannot be choosy. It must take development wherever and whenever it can.

"The area loses more charm with each new construction," says Sikokis. "They built the One Magnificent Mile building at the southwest corner of Oak and Michigan. Then it was Bloomingdale's, at 900 N. Michigan. There used to be a ten-story building there with a Korshak's [a clothing store] and Jacques, a French restaurant, and apartments. We tried to make that a landmark and lost. We seem to lose all the battles.

"The sad thing is that nobody misses these old buildings until they're gone. I remember when they remodeled the Playboy tower and put lights on it. I got a call from a woman who lived in One Mag Mile. She was upset because the lights were shining into her building, and she said, 'Isn't it terrible what this new development is doing?' I wanted to say, 'Lady, that building was there before yours was. And there wouldn't be a problem with lights and congestion if they hadn't built your building in the first place.'"

While these arguments went back and forth, Hancock quietly announced plans to build the atrium. "A number of problems must be addressed if the building is to remain a leader in the Chicago office market," Levy wrote in an essay published by Crain's Chicago Business. "The building's understated entrance is totally insufficient for a 2-million-square-foot structure. The lobby confuses visitors looking for offices, restaurants and merchants. And while the plaza is viewed as one of the only remaining open spaces along the Magnificent Mile, it is not used through most of the year due to gusting winds, excessive traffic noise and frequently inclement weather."

Levy's point of view was seconded by the area's leading business group. "We agree that there is a need to make a revised front entrance," says Nelson Forrest, executive director of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Business Association. "It's about 200 feet from the curb line, creating inconvenient accessibility. We think this can and should be improved."

Residents were unconvinced and quickly gathered more than 4,000 signatures on petitions denouncing the plan. In October they held a rally at the building, drawing about 100 supporters, as well as reporters from the major newspapers and television stations. "It seemed that once we raised the issue, just about everybody was on our side," says Sikokis. "That's how strongly people feel about the John Hancock building. One person who helped us a lot was Myron Goldsmith. He's a well-known architect who used to work at Skidmore. He came right out and said that the building and the plaza form one integral design, one concept known all over the world. The proposal to add anything in the open space destroys this grand concept."

Obviously caught off guard by the protest, Hancock reacted with remarkable aplomb. Levy flew to Chicago, met with residents, and within a matter of weeks unveiled a revised plan that replaced the controversial arched entryway, according to a Hancock press release, with a "semicircular glass enclosure that gradually slopes up to the building, allowing better visibility of the Tower and less encroachment upon North Michigan Avenue."

"The new plan, I think, is better than the original," says Levy. "In any development there will be some opposition from people who don't like change. But surely change goes on whether we like it or not. Most of the groups I have talked to at least recognized that we have some problems with the building. Their comment is, 'Make your changes, but do them inside the building.' My answer is that we tried to do that, and it doesn't work. So we have to find some compromise that makes both sides happy."

Nevertheless, many residents have vowed to take the matter to court if necessary. "I haven't studied the revised plan, but the original proposal violates sections of the city's zoning law," says Steven Harper, a lawyer for the 175 E. Delaware Homeowners Association, the building's condominium organization. "In order to construct a building that tall on its current site, they have to be set back a certain distance from the street. If you decrease the setback, you render the Hancock as one of the largest nonconforming uses in the world."

Levy denies that the current plan violates zoning laws. And even if it does, Hancock officials can ask the Zoning Board of Appels for an exemption or ask the City Council to change the law. Without a compromise, the dispute could drag on for months.

"Hancock talks about making compromises, but we don't believe in compromise if that means disfiguring an important building," says Sikokis. "It's the same old story. Every time they plan to build a new building or tear an old one down, we're told to go along because the city needs the sales-tax revenue. Meanwhile, the rest of the city is falling apart for lack of investment, and we're destroying the beauty of the area that makes all the developers want to come here in the first place. There's got to be a better way of spreading our resources."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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