6 may 10 | The Chicago Tribune

A tale of two urban plazas: Trump's merits a big thumbs up; the Wrigley Building's, a Bronx cheer

by Blair Kamin

This is a tale of two outdoor plazas: The first, just completed by Donald Trump, could become one of Chicago's great public spaces (left). The other, wedged between the two sides of the adjoining Wrigley Building, is an eyesore that looks even worse with Trump's striking new space standing alongside it.

The fates of the two public spaces are interlocked because they provide pedestrians a continuous link between Michigan and Wabash Avenues.

Trump and his design team for the Trump International Hotel & Tower -- the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, former SOM partner Adrian Smith (now at his own firm) and landscape architect Peter Schaudt -- have given the city a genuine gift. And the plaza could become even better if tenants fill empty retail spaces alongside it and Trump makes it more people-friendly.

Because the developer's 92-story skyscraper has a relatively small footprint, it actually endows its site with more open space than the former occupant, the squat, seven-story Chicago Sun-Times Building. And there is not just more open space, a total of 1.2 acres, but more attractive and usable open space. The plaza features rich layers of greenery, alluring pathways around and through the skyscraper, and curving steps that look out on the Chicago River, the Michigan Avenue Bridge and a skyline backdrop right out of a movie set.

If the luminous, sky-reflecting steel-and-glass exterior wall of the Trump skyscraper is the best thing about the project, compensating for its subpar spire and riverfront bulk, then the outdoor space runs a close second.

The key to its success is the way the plaza approaches the river -- not with a harsh, cliff-like edge, as did in the 1957 Sun-Times Building, but with three tiers (left) that gradually step down, forming a theater-like space that draws the visitor's eye to the water. The plaza teams beautifully with the new, city-owned stretch of riverwalk, which opened last year on the river's south bank, to humanize the water's edge.

The architects have expertly woven pathways through the once-tangled site, making it far easier and more pleasant to traverse. The materials, to Trump's credit, are top-of-the-line -- surprising, perhaps, given his image as the prince of glitz. For his part, Schaudt has wisely skipped garden-variety trees and shrubs for a richly-textured mix of wetland grasses, sumac bushes and tall plane trees that evokes a Midwestern riverbank. Large waist-high planters immerse pedestrians in the foliage, furthering the riverbank impression. "The whole idea of landscape in the urban environment is to pull people away--with illusion," Schaudt said.

With the weather finally warming up, people are discovering the space and it is gradually coming alive. Office workers eat lunch, or spread out, on its perforated metal benches, which join with the contours of the overall design to echo the tower's curving geometry. Lovers embrace on the plaza. People yak on their cell phones or just lean on the railings and look out at the river.

Still, there are problems, including the grating brightness of the plaza's hand-chiseled Jerusalem limestone retaining walls (the architects promise it will eventually mellow and become a better match for the gray, Indiana limestone embankments along the river). The plaza's still-incomplete lily pond is marred by a mechanical whir. And the plaza's railings, while appropriately thin to allow views of the river, lack the sculptural robustness of the neo-classical balusters found nearby along the waterfront.

But the biggest shortcoming, besides the absence of tenants in the 90,000 square feet of storefronts facing the river, is the lack of seating, food, music and programmed activity on the plaza level along the river. Without those elements, the area, with its expanse of black granite, looks bare.

Trump executives hope to have tables with attached seating installed by Memorial Day. They also plan summer events, including a possible late-June appearance by Trump and his family to celebrate the tower's completion. But the Trump team should go a step further, bringing in street vendors and musicians to jump-start the space before tenants move in. The plaza is a theater. It needs action, not just retailers and restaurants, to fulfill its potential as a thriving center of city life.

Nonetheless, its faults are minor compared to those of the aging, decrepit plaza at the Wrigley Building, which was finished in the 1957 to provide a pedestrian link between Michigan and Wabash when the Sun-Times Building opened. Originally designed by Chicago architects L.R. Solomon, J.D. Cordwell & Associates, the plaza has been gradually falling apart, with crumbling concrete benches and pavement. It now looks even shabbier next to the spiffy Trump Plaza. And that creates an incongruous situation at the Wrigley Building, which was originally completed in 1924 to a design by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White: One of Chicago's most beautiful skyscrapers has one of the city's dreariest plazas.

Here's the twist: The plaza, built over the city's North Water Street, is not owned by the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., but by the City of Chicago. The city agreed in 1956 to pay for maintaining the public space. It's not doing a very good job. But then again, the Wrigley company, normally civic-minded, isn't racing ahead to fund improvements on its own.

A Wrigley spokeswoman said the company has maintained a "strong dialogue" with the city about "how Wrigley might actively partner" to upgrade the plaza, including helping to pay for improvements. She referred me to the Chicago Department of Transportation to get the city's side of the story. A department spokesman did not return repeated telephone calls. (Work now underway in the Wrigley plaza, shown above, will only change a small portion of the building's façade, not the plaza.)

Given the city's current financial plight, it seems highly unlikely that Chicago officials will find the dollars needed to upgrade the outdoor space. Ironically, portions of the Trump plaza, including a handsome dog park, also occupy city-owned property. Trump's no fool; he didn't want low-rent outdoor spaces on the fringes of his mega-buck tower. Yet the star of "The Apprentice" has also set an example for Wrigley: He paid for the improvements on city property himself.