Creating a powerful vision with Related in Chicago

Last week Related Midwest unveiled eagerly anticipated plans for a 62 acre site in the South Loop. Last year, Wordsearch Place worked with the development team at Related Midwest and the architects SOM to facilitate the co-creation of a compelling, achievable, unique and relevant Place Vision and a deliverable Place Strategy.

The 13 million sq ft masterplan was clearly going to be a mixed-use project with a huge impact, but it was of such huge scale that either it could take years to work out its identity, or it could become a development without a distinct sense of place.

We were asked to help the team answer the elusive question “What is it?” and to create the understanding and vocabulary that would help the team talk about and express the vision of this place in a more compelling way than just square feet and use-class.

After spending a week interviewing development team members, local stakeholders and city officials, and touring Chicago neighborhoods and developments (what we call Discovery Week), we ran a bespoke series of workshops, exercises and presentations to help the team rapidly test the masterplan, to examine their assumptions and help them to look at the project through a microscope rather than a telescope – focusing on the fine-grain at a time when its too easy to just think about the super-scale.

The output was a simply articulated Place Vision, a narrative and a set of themes and instructions that would form the Principles of Place. This would become the basis of their Place Strategy; a playbook for the execution of the future development.

With this playbook in hand, the team developed an Amazon HQ bid, and turned the masterplan into a project which they could proudly and confidently take to public consultation. Seeing the scheme written about in the press, it’s easy to identify the key tenets of the vision, the key discoveries made by the team during the workshops and the strongest aspects of the principles represented in the project.

After the launch to the public last week, Mike Pfeffer, Related’s vice-president of Architecture said “The 78 was received better by the public than I could have ever imagined. The Place Principles specifically set a tone at the onset – (saying) to the neighborhood that we were thoughtful and took the task of making a great place seriously. So…thank you for galvanizing our vision. We featured the principles at the meeting, which had never been done in Chicago before.”


The 78th Neighborhood of Chicago

The core of the vision is the Chicago neighborhood. On our first briefing call with the client, Mike Pfeffer, the VP of Design for Related (having recently moved there from SOM) said “I call this project the 78 because there are 77 Chicago neighborhoods.” It quickly became clear that the concept of neighborhood was one that was critical to Chicagoan’s sense of their own identity. During the Discovery Week, Curt Bailey, the President of Related Midwest, said that he wasn’t looking to build another Hudson Yards (Related’s 12 million sq ft project in New York), because “Hudson Yards is a project that could only happen in Manhattan – it’s a collection of huge rocks dropped into the city. We can’t do that in Chicago.”

During the workshop process we spent a lot of looking at Chicago neighborhoods, how people thought of them, how they were unique, and which neighborhoods Related were looking to reference and honor. We helped the team articulate what values represented Chicago and the different neighbourhoods, and we developed a short list of attributes to describe them.

Diverse– Like all of America, Chicago was a city created by immigrants, but in Chicago that immigrant identity had been captured in its neighborhoods – with areas that retain a strong sense of their ancestry – including Polish, Korean, Austrian, Chinese and European areas.

Inclusive– Chicago is a town that prides itself on not being flashy. Whilst there are clearly areas of rich and poor, and areas of inclusivity and exclusivity, the city is proudly accessible and down-to-earth.

Fun– As Amanda Burden, the chief planner for New York City, says – “Great Cities are like parties – people only stay if they’re fun” – so a great neighborhood in a great city needs to be fun.

Ingenious– The history of Chicago is one of ingenuity and invention – from the conception and realisation, in 2 years, of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the rebuilding of the city after the Great Chicago fire of 1871, the reversing of the flow of the Chicago river in 1900, to the invention of the skyscraper, the Chicago Plan and the Chicago School – Chicago has always been a city with a reputation for pushing the boundaries of architecture and real estate.

Bold– To do all of these ingenious things, you have to be bold. You cannot attempt such feats with trepidation.

Proud– And if you do all of these things, then you will, justifiably be proud.

“We’ve spent years studying what makes those neighborhoods great and are using those attributes to influence the design of The 78,” said Related Midwest President Curt Bailey in a statement. “From vast public recreational spaces to increased transit options to the DPI, The 78 will reflect the best of Chicago. The 78 will become a vibrant riverfront destination for residents, neighbors, future tenants, students and all Chicagoans to gather and experience the best that our city has to offer.”


Chicago Soul

One of the other messages that kept recurring was the concept of Chicago Soul – and the idea that Chicago was a city with soul. We carried out a company-wide exercise to understand what was meant to Chicagoans by Chicago Soul. Related employees brought personal souvenirs, objects and stories to the office that for them represented Chicago Soul, and during one lunchtime shared those stories with each other. The result was a moving understanding of how this place was going to affect their lives, and the lives of their families and loved ones. The idea of Chicago Soul became embedded in the project.

Related Midwest President Curt Bailey said the development will draw from Chicago’s history, culture and soul, and serve as a connection between the South Loop, Chinatown, Pilsen and Bronzeville.”



For All Chicagoans

One of the simplest but most valuable exercises during the workshop week was interrogating who this project was for. While the team debated the amenities that would be wanted by tourists, they realised that they didn’t want to cater specifically or solely for tourists, but that they wanted to cater for Chicagoans – and that tourists might come because the place was cool, but not because they were being specifically attracted. This was a simple realisation that changed their view of the public spaces, and how they would consider the retail.


Straightening the Metra

There is one famous planning quote, by the Chicago architect Daniel Burnham – the architect of the Chicago Plan and of the Colombian Exposition –

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.”

If you play the first part of this quote to Chicago architects, planners and real estate professionals, they groan. But it is the first line they know. The important line is the last. We reminded the Related team that this was the biggest project in Chicago for a generation, and the first post-immigration neighborhood. It was their World’s Fair, and they were the sons, grandsons, daughters and grand-daughters that would stagger those previous generations. It was in this context that we discussed the impact and expense of straightening the Metra line. The Metra Line runs through the middle of the site, and at one point at the north end kinks. The kink in the line not only makes construction more complicated, but it also delays every train that enters the city running on that  line. The team realised that it was the sort of decision that was so big, so important and so impactful to future generations that it had to be done. It was their river straightening, their reversing the flow, their world’s tallest building.

As Curt Bailey said at the public launch “We have been challenged . . . to do something great on this site,” Bailey said. “It is our idea to do a transformational project.”

“Arguably the biggest challenge facing the site are the Metra tracks running along its eastern edge. Related’s bold solution moves the tracks west, away from Clark Street.

The shift will allow Clark Street—currently walled-off and auto-focused—to be re-imagined as a more walkable, urban street with active use. The relocated Metra tracks would be decked over to improve site cohesiveness. Enclosing the rail line comes with the added benefit of improved air quality and reduced noise.”


Chicago’s Happy Hour

During the workshops one of the team realised that the riverfront parcel of the site was the only waterfront site in Chicago that faced the sunset – that every other place either faced the sunrise (the lake) or the midday sunpath (the riverwalk). This realisation helped to reorientate the team’s appreciation of the opportunities provided by the riverwalk, and how important it would be in actually helping to create a sense of place.

As part of their investigation, the team realised that the original phasing plans, to begin in the northeast corner of the site, would not create the greatest value, and that in fact the riverwalk would become the great destination that would kick this place off – a ‘Rock’ that would anchor the site, and that future phases would deliver the fine-grain (or a rock made of pebbles) that would help build the neighbourhood and the future place value.

“While just about every recent development along the Chicago River touts the waterway as an attractive amenity, The 78 takes its relationship to the river to another level.

In a nod to the past, a seven-acre crescent shaped park mirrors the path the river originally followed before it was straightened in the 1920s. To draw people towards the current waterfront, The 78 proposes a number of “open space threads” cutting between and even through some of the buildings.

At river’s edge, the development features a 100-foot-wide, half-mile-long riverwalk that takes lessons from Chicago’s downtown riverwalk. Dedicated “lanes” will be set aside for dining, traversing (think jogging and biking), and waterside lingering.

Building heights step down from Clark Street as they approach the river, maximizing views while giving the waterfront promenade a more human scale.”


Welcoming Winter

One of the great insights captured during the workshop weeks was listening to a local restaurateur who explained the need for all businesses to ride-out the 3 month period in the winter when no one goes out. The team realised that Chicago, unlike many other winter cities, didn’t welcome winter, but rather people locked themselves away and rode it out. We looked at other winter cities, and ran brainstorm sessions to imagine how this site could be the place that encouraged Chicagoans to welcome winter – and the result was an appreciation of the opportunities afforded by this gap in the local market.

“The developer envisions winter activities in the site’s expansive open areas, coupled with a long row of restaurants whose covered patios would accommodate outdoor dining throughout the year.

“This is a space we want to make available to everyone all year long,” said Curt Bailey, Related Midwest’s president. “Our anchor, our everything, is the river. So we have all these pathways and sightlines leading to the river.”

Related Midwest is calling the development The 78— a reference to its sprawling layout, which it says is like creating a 78th Chicago community area. The property is bordered by the river, Roosevelt Road, Clark Street and Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park.”


The rapid co-creation of confidence and certainty

Of all the insight and understanding generated by the process that we ran, the most valuable outcomes are probably the intangible ones. The masterplan architect, Phil Enquist from SOM, said at the end of the week that they had received “9 months briefing in 1 week” such was the rapid development of a shared vision and understanding of the opportunities.

The President of Related Midwest, Curt Bailey, said after he presented to the mayor, Rahm Emmanuel,” I wouldn’t have been able to talk about the project in the way that I can without having done this process.”

The project gets its numeric name from the fact that Chicago has 77 recognized neighborhoods and the development is so large that it will increase that number by one. Any thoughts that the term was a temporary placeholder were quickly put to rest when a resident asked the team if they had thought of a name for the project.

The 78 is what our team came up with and it’s already being used by members of the community,” responded Bailey. To drive the point home, attendees of the meeting were offered complimentary baseball caps embroidered with the number 78.”

If you’d like to find out more about The 78 or download the principles visit

Posted on 30th May 2018 in

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