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2000-foot-tall Pigeon Roost proposed for Chicago's lakefront

ArchitectureChicago Plus posting from October 25, 2005


In this morning's Trib, architecture critic Blair Kamin and real estate columnist Thomas Corfmann reveal plans for a $300,000,000, 2,000 foot-high HDTV broadcast tower to be constructed by a partnership of J. Paul Beitler and LR Development along Chicago's lakeshore, not from another 2,000 structure, the Santiago Calatrava designed Fordham Spire. Unlike the Spire, however, the Beitler project, other than a 400-car parking garage at the bottom and restaurants at the top, would be an empty tripod, three huge concrete legs, joined by beams every 10 to 15 stories, that would support three tall antennas at the top.

The designer is Cesar Pelli, the usually reliable architect who recently completed the striking Ratner Athletic Center on the University of Chicago campus. At Beitler Tower, however, most of his better instincts seemed to have abandoned him. If the developers had really meant to do this right, they would have simply gone to Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings Merrill and resurrected his unbuilt design for 7 South Dearborn, a HDTV tower that's everything the Pelli is not: slim, soaring, graceful and elegant.

Simply put, this project is an atrocity.

More to the point, it could also quickly become the world's biggest white elephant. The impetus for the tower is Congress's mandate that broadcasters switch to digital-only transmission, probably by 2009. Stations are therefore staking out locations for their high-def antennas. However, currently only about 20% of all viewers receive their signals "over-the-air", and it's a fair bet that by the time the Beitler tower would be completed, that number will be even more dramatically lower.

There are about 3,400,000 TV households in the Chicago market. That means the tower would cost over $400 per over-the-air household at 20%, or nearly $1,000 at 10%. Today, having a television is considered a necessity for even the poorest families - 98.2% of U.S. households have at least one TV. It's not hard to envision how over just the next few years, access to basic cable or direct TV over a dish will become another basic necessity, and over-the-air transmission will all but wither away. And what will we stuck with? A parking garage and some restaurants, stuck in a giant wishbone of a structure that no longer serves a purpose.

The Beitler tower is less a building than a gargatuan piece of infrastructure. Placed amidst the railyards in a city or a suburb, it would be a marvel of engineering. Placed in the heart of Chicago's downtown, it's merely an eyesore. It's a throwback to the days when cities trashed their downtowns by stuffing them beneath the dark shadows of elevated expressways. It's hard to see the general public embracing this proposal. Even on an architecture forum like, where there's usually unbridled enthusiasm for anything tall, discussion over the Beitler tower has been markedly cool.

According to Kamin and Corfmann, nothing is really real on this project. The developers are "negotiating" with the city's TV stations. The proposal has been "presented" to Chicago's Department of Planning - no formal approval process has begun. If they have any sense for public relations, Chicago's major TV outlets will distance themselve from this project without delay, and, if that doesn't work, the mayor and his new planning commissioner Lori Healey should telegraph the city's disapproval quickly. Or do we really want to turn into Toronto?

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© Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.