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Vacant For 20 Years, Chicago's Old Main Post Office Is Now The Largest Redevelopment In The U.S.

The first thing one notices upon walking into the Old Main Post Office's lobby is the floor, its surface polished so that it reflects a ceiling painstakingly restored to its original Art Deco glory.

The last time the lobby looked this good, Heath Ledger was running amok in the opening bank heist in "The Dark Knight." Now it is the first sign of life for the Old Main Post office after 20 years of vacancy and decay.

The Old Main Post Office, Chicago
Crews have been hard at work restoring the lobby to the Old Main Post Office.

Construction crews spent the past 12 months removing 23 million pounds of debris from the building — 90% of it was recycled — in what is now the largest redevelopment project in the U.S.: 2.8M SF, spanning three city blocks and five acres. The 601W Cos. bought the Old Main Post Office from the late Bill Davies in May 2016 (one day before Davies' death), and launched a $600M redevelopment.

The restored lobby, revealed for the first time at a news conference Wednesday, shows the long-term potential of the 2.8M SF building, now known simply as The Post Office. The 601W Cos.' plans call for a roof with over three acres of park, a large-scale festival food market, amenities that promise to be among the most unique in Chicago and the nation, 2.5M SF of office space and the ability to build millions more on adjacent land.

More immediately, the lobby served as an example to a certain e-commerce giant in the Pacific Northwest that this is only one of many sites that the Second City offers as a second headquarters.

Front (L-R): Ald. Danny Solis, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gensler Chicago Senior Design Director Sheryl Schulze and The Telos Group President Brian Whiting
Ald. Danny Solis, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gensler Chicago Senior Design Director Sheryl Schulze and The Telos Group President Brian Whiting at the Post Office lobby renovation press conference

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who with Gov. Bruce Rauner earlier Wednesday announced a 600-person committee to head the effort to bring Amazon HQ2 to Chicago, wanted to send a message.

"I want to make it clear that Amazon can be ready to work in Chicago on day one," Emanuel said. 

The mayor cited the Post Office as an example of several sites across the city that sat dormant for years and were a drain on Chicago's resources. He said now Amazon, or any other company, would find these sites attractive.

Ald. Danny Solis, The Telos Group President Brian Whiting and Gensler Chicago Senior Design Director Sheryl Schulze
Alderman Danny Solis, The Telos Group President Brian Whiting and Gensler Chicago Senior Design Director Sheryl Schulze

The city's full-court press for Amazon HQ2 brings the Post Office full circle. When it was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White in 1921, it was the world's largest post office, built to accommodate mail order retailers like Sears, Roebuck & Co., Spiegel and Montgomery Ward. The building has been stripped of its mechanical systems, and the freight elevators that once hauled millions of retail catalogs are gone. The Telos Group President Brian Whiting, who is overseeing the Post Office's leasing efforts for the 601W Cos., called the building a "blank canvas" that offers tenants the perfect mix of space and transportation for companies seeking a Chicago address.

Whiting acknowledged that 601W will pursue Amazon HQ2, but stressed during and after the news conference that the firm's commitment to redeveloping Post Office predated HQ2 mania. Although the Post Office meets the major qualifications that Amazon is seeking in its request for proposals, there remains a lot of vagueness as to Amazon's exact needs in a second headquarters. Whiting said the building can handle another tenant's immediate needs as easily as it can Amazon's.

Telos Group is already negotiating with potential tenants for space at the Post Office.

"We want to continue our leasing process and we're close to making commitments to people. And when we make a commitment, we want to keep it," Whiting said.

Gensler Senior Design Director Sheryl Schulze
Gensler Senior Design Director Sheryl Schulze

Prospective tenants will have 250K SF floor plates, the largest in Chicago. Gensler Senior Design Director Sheryl Schulze said the building will have an open layout, which will allow sunlight to flood into it. The elevators will be pushed away from the building's core, and the building's new infrastructure will be positioned to accommodate workflows and not block views.