When wall comes tumbling down at Lakeside Center, action is needed

The collapse is another reminder that the MPEA, city and state must step up repairs at the 51-year-old building and give some serious thought to its future use.

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Workers removed the decorative brick on Lakeside Center’s west side after a large section of the cladding collapsed Monday onto the Stevenson Expressway ramps to northbound DuSable Lake Shore Drive

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It’s been an open secret for the past decade that McCormick Place’s ragged Lakeside Center needs a major, big-ticket rehabilitation.

Additional proof came Monday evening when a big section of the brick cladding adorning the structure’s mammoth podium suddenly collapsed and spilled onto the Stevenson Expressway ramp to northbound DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Cars were damaged, and luckily no one was injured.

The collapse is another reminder that the hall’s owner, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, needs to step up repairs at Lakeside Center and give some serious thought to the 51-year-old building’s future before things inevitably worsen.

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$400 million in repairs needed

The section of the podium’s dark-colored face brick loosened and fell onto the ramp, according to MPEA and the Office of Emergency Management and Communication.

Traffic was rerouted for hours while the debris was removed.

Officials are figuring out what caused the collapse and are looking to fix the damage which, fortunately, seems more cosmetic than structural.

Still, the crumbling wall provides a glimpse into Lakeside Center’s overall repair needs.

In April, the MPEA reported the building needs a staggering $400 million rehabilitation, including a new 19-acre roof and fixes to the hall’s parking structure, plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems.

Lakeside Center’s exterior glass — and there are acres of that, too — needs replacing, and the voluminous interior spaces need work also.

Last April, the MPEA said the repairs didn’t need to be done at once and could be taken care of over a number of years. But Monday’s wall collapse makes us think otherwise.

It also doesn’t instill confidence — at least not in the short term — that any cash to repair the hall comes from bonds that are backed by sales taxes collected from the city’s still pandemic-weakened hospitality, tourism and restaurant industries.

MPEA could seek state funding to rejuvenate Lakeside Center, but nearly a half-billion dollars is still a mighty big ask for a building that now represents McCormick Place’s past more than its future.

Spend some time around McCormick Place’s front door at 23rd Street and King Drive, where hotels, Wintrust Arena and other activities are gathered, and Lakeside Center is virtually out of sight and out of mind.

And demolishing the building and reclaiming the lakeshore on which it sits is a tough option.

According to the MPEA, Lakeside Center’s 30,000-square foot kitchen serves the McCormick Place campus.

The agency also says the building has a host of mechanical and communications equipment, and chilled air lines that service the other McCormick Place buildings also.

When Lakeside Center was being considered for a casino site earlier this year, the MPEA responded that taking the building offline meant a $1.7 billion hall would have to be built to replace the lost meeting hall’s space and functions.

Demolition could run into the tens of millions at least, experts tell us. And it would also likely cause a Donnybrook of a preservation battle, given the modernist building’s history — it was once among the most impressive convention halls in the nation — size, architectural significance and architects: the acclaimed Gene Summers and a young Helmut Jahn.

Needed: a new day for Lakeside Center

It’s a civic embarrassment — and a dangerous one at that — for one of the city’s most visible and iconic structures to just up and crumble into the street like a common shack.

But the incident could also be a call to duty, for the MPEA, the city, the state and Chicago’s considerable architectural talent to begin now mapping out a new day for the old building.

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