The Crowns hold out for a jewel on vacant downtown property

New plans floated for 130 N. Franklin St. maximize sun exposure for office dwellers who remain nervous about the pandemic, but a tenant still needs to sign on.

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A rendering of the building planned for 130 N. Franklin St.

A rendering of the building planned for 130 N. Franklin St.

Krueck Sexton Partners

Chicago’s billionaire Crown family hasn’t made many unfortunate moves in business. Arguably, one of their worst has involved a vacant half-block portion of downtown Chicago.

It runs along the west side of Franklin Street between Randolph and Washington streets. It’s been barren for decades except for a surface parking lot on the northern part, now a rarity for the Loop. So over the years, it’s produced a trickle of income for the family.

They wanted more and have marketed the site as suitable for a big corporation seeking a trophy. They are trying it again, and perhaps their luck will change. But through the city’s periodic growth spurts, the property always joined the party at the wrong time and with the wrong scheme.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Chicago Enterprise

The Crowns definitely had grand plans because in 2003 they knocked down the last building on the property, hoping a larger site would be more coveted.

The victim was the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building, actually the Merc’s former home, at 300 W. Washington, a dignified structure in the Classical Revival style by Alfred Alschuler. It was in good shape and had paying tenants. It wasn’t a museum piece; it was a working building that conjured old Chicago. Years ago, it was where Henry Crown ran his enterprises. But it had to go.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration issued a demolition permit, a decision that produced a kerfuffle. Letters were written and petitions passed. There was even a protest outside the building that drew about 100 people in 2002. But nothing could be done and preservationists today probably figure the site’s inactivity since then is cosmic comeuppance for the owners.

The old building had an “orange” rating in the city’s system for classifying potentially historic or significant properties. It’s a midrange rating, a “maybe it’s a landmark or maybe not” category. Twenty years ago, that did not protect a building from quick demolition.

After the Crowns got their way, the city instituted a 90-day hold on demolition orders for “orange” buildings to give people time to compromise, so at least old Merc fell for a purpose.

But as Chicago grew, especially along Wacker Drive, problems mounted for the Franklin site. Whatever gets built will butt up against buildings at 123 and 101 North Wacker.

In the lingo of developers sensitive to these things, that makes the Crowns’ property a “dark site.” On its west side, there are no views or access to sunlight until you get to higher floors. And that handicaps the desirability for a corporate tenant.

The lower floors with terraces and a “hanging garden” planned at 130 N. Franklin St.

The lower floors with terraces and a “hanging garden” planned at 130 N. Franklin St.

Krueck Sexton Partners

The Crowns’ longtime real estate ally, Tishman Speyer, and architectural firm Krueck Sexton Partners have submitted a redesign that treats that problem.

It also offers tenants a “hanging garden” and other amenity space, some of it open to the air, to meet the concerns of office users in a post-pandemic world. The lower floors are angled toward the southeast, opening up a plaza at the building’s base. The high-rise portion would get a couple of “sky garden” floors and a generous allotment of balconies.

Some might be vertigo-inducing, but maybe they’ll appeal to executives assigned to the upper floors. The building would be approximately 730 feet tall, about 53 stories.

City records show the revised design was approved as a minor zoning update in October. The action bought the Crowns some time. The property, known officially as 130 N. Franklin, got a “planned development” zoning designation in 2015.

It was due to expire in 2021, but the city granted a one-year extension because of the business slowdown from COVID-19. With the design change, the city has granted another one-year extension, until October 2023.

Representatives of the Crown family, Tishman Speyer and Krueck Sexton did not respond or declined to discuss the revision and the prospects for the property. Their challenge won’t be easy.

The hunt for an anchor tenant and for financing comes as companies are evaluating office needs while many employees work from home. Space that companies are putting up for sublease still exerts a drag on the market. Some developers believe it’ll be years before downtown Chicago gets a new trophy-class building.

Others are more bullish but aim for buildings with a boutique appeal in the West Loop. New York-based Vista Property Group has proposed a 15-story building at 640 W. Randolph St., much like a building it completed just up the block. Veteran developer John Buck has scrapped plans for a trophy-style tower at 655 W. Madison St., near the Kennedy Expressway, and now is eyeing two smaller towers that could be easier to lease.

The Crowns, meanwhile, still aim higher. They can afford a little more patience than most peers.

Protesters march outside the old Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building in 2002, hoping to stop its pending demolition.

Protesters march outside the old Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building in 2002, hoping to stop its pending demolition.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

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