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Tired of waiting, Emanuel moves to acquire, redevelop old Main Post Office

After years of grand plans and empty promises, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is moving to seize control over a giant civic embarrassment: the vacant Main Post Office that hovers over the Eisenhower Expressway.

British developer Bill Davies, who purchased the dilapidated hulk of a building eight years ago, was notified Friday of the city’s intention to use its sweeping condemnation powers to acquire the building and solicit bids to redevelop it.

The “request for proposals” for the entire building — not pieces of it — is expected to be issued this spring with a winner chosen this summer. The designated developer will be required to bankroll the city’s acquisition of the property and develop the project without tax-increment-financing (TIF) or any other city subsidy, said Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman.

“This is a critically important building. It’s in a blighted condition. It’s falling apart. It’s been cited for a number of building code violations. It’s potentially dangerous to the public. It’s been sitting there for almost two decades in this state. It’s time to move to reverse that [and] redevelop it,” Reifman said Friday.

Reifman said a “whole mix of uses would be acceptable” for the massive complex that has sat vacant for more than 20 years through the ups and downs of the real estate market.

“Offices would be great. So would a certain amount of residential and hotels. All of those typical downtown uses would be a tremendous positive change,” he said.

“The key is, this is a significant structure that’s been in our city for so long. We want to see a great result. We have not seen the type of progress we expect. We haven’t seen the progress that was promised.”

The former main post office, which was built with a hole in the middle to accommodate the as-yet unbuilt Eisenhower Expressway, has been vacant since 1995. | File photo
The former main post office, which was built with a hole in the middle to accommodate the as-yet unbuilt Eisenhower Expressway, has been vacant since 1995. | File photo

Davies, who lives in the tax haven of Monaco, could not be reached for comment on the city’s actions.

He bought the building for $17 million in 2009 after defaulting on his winning auction bid of $40 million.

Two years later, he announced plans for a massive complex of retail, hotel and residential space with a trio of modern skyscrapers flanking the art deco post office. One of the new buildings would have risen to 2,000 feet — taller than the Willis Tower.

Jack George, a Chicago attorney representing Davies, declined to comment on the city’s decision to pull the plug.

Last fall, Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) made it clear his patience was wearing thin.

He threatened to strip Davies of the coveted zoning approval he won in July, 2013 after learning that Davies had twice turned down offers of $150 million from other developers.

On Friday, Solis said he “encouraged” Emanuel to use the city’s ultimate weapon: the power of eminent domain.

“I’ve been frustrated. We gave this guy a full [planned development] to do a fantastic project. He immediately attracted developers who offered him five times as much money as he put into it, but he turned it down. It’s his greediness to make even more money that has resulted in a big loss for the city in jobs and tax revenue,” Solis said.

Solis scoffed at Davies’ most recent plan to lower his sights and start small — by seeking tenants for 300 “micro apartments” — units ranging from 250 to 600 square feet. That’s a concept tried in New York City that has never been tested in Chicago.

“We don’t know if it would work. He’s just stalling. It’s too late. It’s sitting there. It’s not safe. It’s right over the gateway to the city — a very busy expressway. It’s an eyesore. It’s dangerous. We’ve got to move on it. We’ve got to do something and do something quick,” Solis said.

The Old Main Post Office closed in 1995. The giant hulk has sat vacant ever since, despite its prominent location at the western gateway to downtown.

Over the years, the building has been frequently mentioned as the future home for a downtown casino that has eluded Chicago mayors for a generation. There’s also been talk of an IKEA and a corporate headquarters for Walgreens.

On Friday, Reifman was asked whether a downtown casino was out of the question.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports it. So does Gov. Bruce Rauner. When and if the state budget stalemate is ever resolved, Chicago just might get that elusive casino.

“There’s no current authority for a casino,” Reifman said. “We’re going to move forward. We’re not waiting to see what happens with that.”