For over 20 years, it sat vacant and imposing, overlooking the westerly approach to Downtown Chicago. Now the Old Post Office is nearly ready to welcome its first office tenants to an adaptive reuse that has implications beyond the building’s footprint.
New-York-based 601W Companies has sunk more than $800 million into the 2.8-million-square-foot, Art Deco behemoth. Now, those redevelopment efforts are paying off as one of the properties numerous prominent tenants, Ferrara Candy, prepares to officially move in on November 4th.
“Superlatives are very easy to use with the Post Office,” said Brian Whiting, president of the Telos Group, which has been advising 601W and marketing the property to potential tenants. “It’s the largest post office ever built, the largest redevelopment going on in the nation and the largest adaptive reuse of a historic structure.”
601W Companies acquired the iconic property in 2016 and tapped architecture firm Gensler to draw up a vision for the building’s second life, including the addition of a forthcoming food hall and a new Riverwalk. A four-acre, tenant-accessible rooftop park will feature a basketball court, two paddle courts, a quarter-mile running track, a bar and plenty of green space. Bear Construction was selected as general contractor for the monumentous project.
“There were literally thousands of people who have invested their heart and soul into the adaptive reuse and reposition of this building,” said Sheryl Schulze, NCIDQ, RID, principal at Gensler, “a building that the project team affectionately calls ‘sleeping beauty.'”
Now that the building is ready to awaken from its slumber, it brings with it the potential to rejuvenate a part of the city that is itself sleepy: the near South and Southwest Loop. With this redevelopment—as well as the projects happening along the South Branch of the Chicago River—there are signs of stirring.
Office tenants should be attracted to a newly revitalized area of the city. In the case of the Old Post Office, they are attracted to not only the historic touches, but the large floor plates. Ferrara originally signed on for 78,000 square feet but leased another 40,000 square feet before the ink was even dry on that deal. They pulled the trigger on the additional space in part because of the opportunities for collaboration that the Old Post Office offers.
“It was important to be on one floor for Ferrara’s culture,” said Theresa Williams, principal, design director at Nelson, the architecture firm that designed Ferrara’s offices. “It also helps everyone to see each other, to have those spontaneous moments to run into each other.”
This is a homecoming of sorts for Ferrara, which was founded not far away in Little Italy in 1908. One of the main drivers behind the confectioner’s move of approximately 400 employees from their Oakbrook Terrace offices back to Chicago was that they believe the property will attract young, innovative employees.
“One of the reasons we made this decision to relocate to downtown Chicago was because of access to a tremendous pool of diverse talent,” said Todd Siwak, chief executive officer of Ferrara Candy. “We are going to use our space to attract and retain talent.”
By the time construction is completed next year, the Old Post Office will be capable of housing up to 14,000 employees. More than 75 percent of the building’s space has been pre-leased, accounting for over 1.8 million square feet. The project should be an engine for relocation as well; according to Whiting, only about half of the employees that are projected to eventually occupy the building are currently in the city of Chicago.
Walgreens was the first user to commit to the building, announcing last summer that they would take on more than 200,000 square feet. Tech giant Uber is the largest confirmed tenant so far, as they signed a 10-year lease for 450,000 square feet. Among the others that will eventually occupy the Old Post Office are Cboe, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, AbelsonTaylor and Kroger subsidiaries Home Chef and 84.51°.
The original post office was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White—the prolific Chicago architectural firm behind many of the city’s icons, including the Civic Opera House, Field Museum, the Merchandise Mart, Shedd Aquarium and the Wrigley Building. There was a 1932 addition, built to accommodate the exploding mail order businesses of Montgomery Ward and Sears.
That expansion included one of the hulking structure’s most notable features: the void in the base to allow (an at the time, then-proposed) highway to pass through. This, as well as the active Amtrak trains that also run beneath the building required some imagination during the redesign.
For example, Gensler placed a grand boulevard on the second floor for tenants to reach the farthest corners of the three-block-long building without being cut off by the highway bifurcating the building. Access to this area is via escalators that are lifted up on a plinth to accommodate subfloor infrastructure that couldn’t be installed per usual due to the rail lines below.
This second floor space includes much of the 80,000 square feet of amenities. This includes the Telegram Lounge, a conferencing center dubbed the Marquee, a library, and a massive tenant-only gymnasium branded Boxcar.
This project represents over three years of hard work—work that is still ongoing. When finished, it will open up fallow land to productive use, both in the Post Office itself and in the surround blocks.