The ‘mistake on the lake’ gets a retake as agency seeks to re-envision Lakeside Center

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One of the conceptual renderings released Thursday as part of Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority plans to remake McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center.

The aged but architecturally-important Lakeside Center is being sized-up for a major makeover that could bring new uses to portions of the building — or even end its days as a convention hall entirely.

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority on Thursday issued a “request for information” seeking ideas to redevelop all or parts of the 51-year-old building.

“We don’t have any preconceived notions” for the building’s future, said MPEA CEO Larita Clark. “We are really open to all ideas at this point.”

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Finding new uses for Lakeside Center is a good step right now for the MPEA. The building needs $400 million in repairs — and it shows. Last July, brick cladding on its hall’s podium spilled onto the Stevenson Expressway ramp to DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Here’s hoping the RFI process brings the improvements that Lakeside Center deserves.

Improving the ‘mistake’

Built in 1971 at 23rd Street and Lake Shore Drive, Lakeside Center and the burned-down hall it replaced were dubbed “the mistake on the lake” for squatting down on lakefront parkland.

The mistake can’t now be corrected by demolishing the building, nor should it be. But the MPEA’s move, if done with care and deliberation, represents an intriguing — and far better — alternative.

Clark said the MPEA’s end game is to team up with a company or group that can help build, finance and operate the new space (or spaces) at Lakeside Center.

The uses would have to make money for the agency, the RFI states. And the endeavor must be compatible with the convention trade, while complimenting the surrounding neighborhoods and enhancing the lakefront and Museum Campus.

The new operator can use some of Lakeside Center or all it. And the uses can be open seasonally.

Combined, that’s a pretty tall order to correctly fill. It should be, considering the size, location and importance of the site.

And about that site…

Lakeside Center is a barrier on the lakefront, not so much for its architecture — although that’s what gets blamed — but for its single-purpose use as a conventional hall.

Wouldn’t it be an entirely different story, though, if the building hosted restaurants, shops, or cultural attractions?

And if all that dark glass were made transparent, as originally intended by its architects Gene Summers and Helmut Jahn, so that the building lights up the lakefront rather than broods by it?

Then, with the topsides of the building’s podium activated and surrounding parkland improved, the place becomes an architectural and civic asset worthy of its location.

“We want to see the building be much more oriented to people being able to engage the lakefront — or have it not be a big box with its back to the lake,” Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry said.

The question of cost

So what’s the rub, if any?

One issue could be the requirement that any Lakeside Center exhibition space that’s lost in this venture would have to be rebuilt elsewhere by the new operator.

And if a proposal calls for reuse of the entire building? MPEA would require the operator to build a replacement convention hall, at a cost likely upwards of $1 billion.

That’s the detail that MPEA used earlier this year to help kill a proposal to convert Lakeside Center into the city’s first casino. The gaming emporium will be built at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street instead.

There is also the question of who shells out the $400 million in building repairs for Lakeside Center. Clark said that is a point that would be negotiated with the entity that wins the bid.

“The MPEA does not have a huge pot of money sitting, waiting for this project,” she said. “So anything we do at this point, we have to work together with … the final chosen respondent to determine how the financial portion will benefit both parties.”

A reimagined Lakeside Center could be between three and five years away, depending on the size of the winning proposal, Clark said.

The plan does have the support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

In a statement accompanying the RFI’s announcement, Lightfoot said the effort “aligns with the great work completed by the Museum Campus working group to reimagine and embolden this important area of our city.”

Pritzker said, “This RFI will identify new opportunities for economic growth and advancement for the McCormick Place campus, Chicago, and all of Illinois.”

Meanwhile, MPEA will accept responses to the RFI until noon, Dec. 22.

Lee Bey is the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic and a member of the Editorial Board.

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Author: Lee Bey