City releases new renderings showing ‘evolved’ Bally’s casino design

Architecture critic Lee Bey asks: Do the changes give Chicago a winning hand?

SHARE City releases new renderings showing ‘evolved’ Bally’s casino design
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New Bally’s renderings released by the city.

City of Chicago

The design of the planned Bally’s River North casino and hotel complex has undergone a significant makeover that replaces much of the original scheme’s Vegas-like glitz with a more sober look.

Department of Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said the new “evolved” design is the result of months of biweekly meetings with casino officials, stakeholders and others.

He said the result is “a better product.”

The new renderings — first obtained by the Sun-Times — were expected to be made public later Thursday.

“Our intention was to really create a Chicago moment,” Cox said of the new designs. “A feeling that would be iconic.”

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But do the changes give Chicago a winning hand?

‘Memorable architectural moment’

According to the latest renderings, the redesign entirely changes the look of the complex’s $1.7 billion first phase to be developed by Bally’s.

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Previous renderings show a glitzier casino complex

City of Chicago

The changes don’t alter the placement of the components of the plan, which was approved last year by the city: a 3,000-seat theater anchoring the south end of the complex, followed by casino space, restaurants and retail, then a curved, glass-faced 505,000 square foot hotel tower holding down the northern portion of the campus.

But the 1.4 million square foot casino and theater are far less glassy than before, particularly above the first floor. The new design presents expanses of light-colored corrugated-looking facade material facing the river.

“We talked a lot about how you take something that’s a big box and make it something that’s a memorable architectural moment,” Cox said of the changes.

Cox said the redesigned facade was “meant to recall the industrial language” of the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant that will be demolished to make way for the casino.

(Printing operations are scheduled to move from the site next year. Bally’s bought the 30-acre parcel for $200 million in 2022 after the city approved plans to build Chicago’s first casino there.)

Under the redesign, the complex doesn’t yell casino! as loudly as before. The re-do makes it clear other amenities and attractions are there — and can be visited without going to the casino.

“Our thought is we have to bring Chicagoans to this site, whether they gamble or not,” Cox said.

An ‘urban casino’

In March, I said the casino complex as then designed “is huge, loud and yet architecturally anonymous … better suited for a stretch of I-15 in the Nevada desert … than for the prime urban riverside site for which it’s slated.”

That opinion hasn’t changed. The new design approach — however ambitious — still can’t get past the fact a giant casino and entertainment complex at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street is a bad fit.

For instance, the casino riverwalk and a one-acre park south of the theater could be an abundantly green edge along that section of the naturalist North Branch.

Instead, the walk looks like masses of hardscape with greenery adorning the edges.

And it has to be. That’s because the design is in service to a huge commercial venture that has to accommodate scores of people drawn to the site to eat, gamble and get entertained.

The makeover does succeed in helping the complex look less like a brightly-lit roadside attraction, which helps the development’s planned residential second phase to the west from having to compete with the casino’s flash — or risk getting overshadowed by it.

And yet, with the changes the complex looks more anonymous than before.

That’s because the task at hand is an architectural quagmire: How do you design a casino in the middle of a big American city known for its architecture?

Do you lean into it — as was the first Bally’s approach — so that the casino attracts patrons by being as bright, blinky and showy as those old Holiday Inn motel signs?

Or do you dial things down, as the redesign does, and make the casino more subdued and citified?

“No [big] American city has been able to create an urban casino,” Cox said.

And on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street, we just might find out why that’s the case.

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

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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