September 2, 2012
Bill Davies, the eccentric Monaco-based owner of Chicago's old post office, wants to turn the hulking mass that straddles Congress Parkway into a mecca of shopping, office space, residences, etc.
But the building sits rotting and untouched because, among several reasons, Davies wants to mount a parking garage over the parkway, and city officials are refusing to allow it, according to two sources close to the project.
"He went back to wanting to put the parking over Congress," said a source who attended a June meeting between city staff and Davies at City Hall. City officials confirmed that was the last time the two parties met. "The city is not happy with that. They don't like that. So that's kind of where it ended. ... The city was expecting something, and he switched ideas in the meeting."
In the meeting?
"Well, it appeared that way," the source said. "Which he's wont to do."
According to several sources, Davies' yo-yoing on multiple issues has become a frustration. However, after a multi-month lull in activity following the June meeting, Davies is back to work on a modified proposal, presumably one without a new structure arching over the parkway, according to sources.
Department of Housing and Economic Development commissioner Andrew Mooney declined an interview for this story, but deputy commissioner Peter Strazzabosco said: "What we've seen to date is a proposal with a lot of moving pieces. There's no plan that we're looking at right now. We anticipate more detailed information to be provided about specific uses, site layout, heights and densities, and other zoning criteria."
Davies, who bought the building in 2009, declined to comment.
"The post office in order to be successful needs a lot of parking," said the project's architect, Laurence Booth of Booth Hansen. "He wanted more cars. So (a garage over the parkway) would have given him more cars."
Despite the delays, there has been some action connected to the project. Davies' team has been hit with complaints from government agencies in the wake of multiple fires at the property.
In addition to straddling the parkway, the building sits over tracks heading south out of Union Station. Earlier this year, the Tribune reported that ventilation fans in the building — designed to pull diesel exhaust up and away from the train yard — were malfunctioning. According to the Chicago Fire Department, that caused creosote, a highly flammable substance, to build up in the ventilation ducts and spark at least three fires.
In February, Amtrak sued Davies' company, International Property Developers, in federal court over the lack of maintenance on the fans and falling debris. And then in May, the city piled on with its own civil suit in the housing section of Cook County Circuit Court. Both cases remain open. The federal case is scheduled for a status hearing Tuesday.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said in an email last week that as of an Aug. 25 test, the fans were now turned on full time to eliminate the creosote buildup. Also corrected was the building's "standpipe system," which functions like a fire hydrant inside large buildings.
Crews plug their fire engines into the system through a connection on the exterior of the building. The engines then shoot water through the pipes, which snake through the building.
Before the fixes, Langford said, "We had fires on upper floors and had to deliver water ourselves, independent of the standpipe system. We put water in the base level, and it didn't come out at the top."
Langford said other issues remain.
"Elevator problems still are being worked out — many of the elevators are out of service — as well as stairwell identification for first responders," he said. "Removing the combustibles and making the building 'broom clean' is still being addressed, but delayed because of asbestos still within the building. Abatement issues are being worked on by the owner."
Langford said: "The Chicago Fire Department would say the owner of the building is moving in a positive direction."
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