The Rise and Fall and Resurrection of the Chicago Old Main Post Office

There's talk (again) that a casino might be moving into the landmark building on Congress Parkway.

Image Source: Ian Freimuth via Flickr The Old Main Post Office at 433 W. Van Buren. Built in 1922, it's been vacant since 1995. Big development plans haven't materialized.

The idea simply will not die. From the beginning, back in 2009, when English investor Bill Davies burned through town and got everyone in a froth over his (what some remarked) wild-eyed speculative plans for the 2.5 million square feet of the dormant Old Main Post Office, the story of "what if," and "will he do it?" won't quit. But where's the third act? Here's a recap of the broad moves, up to the latest Hail Mary pass: Talk (again!) about a casino.

August 2009: The Post Office is auctioned off on Aug. 27, bought by investor Bill Davies of International Property Developers North America Inc. Well, not exactly. The jet-setting 70-something Monaco-based Davies wins the $40 million bid but misses the close and defaults. His people issue a statement that IPD and the United States Postal Service were unable to reach agreement on certain “key issues” about the redevelopment. We're off to a rocky start.

October 2009: After blowing two payment deadlines, Davies throws some elbows, shaving the price to $24 million in a sealed-bid auction and nabs the hulking building. "We wish the new owners of this property the best of luck in their efforts," Tom Samra, the Postal Service's vice-president of facilities, said in a statement. That's what you say when you breakup with someone to pretend it's civil.

March 2010: All The Kings Heavy Hitters. Davies hires the ex-Mayor's brother Michael Daley's law firm Daley & George Ltd; Architectural firm Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie (Johnson was deceased in 2005); Laurence Booth of architectural firm Booth Hansen; real estate brokerage company Cushman & Wakefield Inc. Impressive.

July 2011: To Dream the Impossible $3.5 Billion Pipe Dream. Davies unveils his three-phase 10-year plan. The whole shebang is to be financed out of his private pocket – no investors on deck. That's quite a magic trick. Here's the highlights: He's got a Beaux Arts entrance from Van Buren Street; multiple skyscrapers, two taller than the Sears Tower and One World Trade Center; a 120-story high-rise to become the tallest residential hotel in the world; 6.2 million square feet of shopping and entertainment space. And to connect all 20 acres together, build a multi-story bridge across the river. Yep, Davies is selling Chicago a bridge. But no casino, according to project manager Martin Mulryan.

July 2011: “This is a guy who is hallucinating.” With something concrete to scrutinize, the fallout is swift and suspicions mount. A piece in the The New York Times calls Davies' redevelopment plans too big to be visionary and jaws drop with this reveal: This isn't the mysterious Davies' first flirt with redeveloping a post office. “He bought an old post office building [in Liverpool], promised to redevelop it and then let it sit idle for 16 years," writes David Greising. Chicago developer J. Paul Beitler runs down a list of major problems with the plan, the kind that include people getting sterilized from radiation. 

January – April 2013: Casino. Once more, with feeling. We're four years in and we've circled back to the gambling table. Last December, Joe Antunovich of Antunovich and Associates took over the project and submitted Version 2.0 of a pared down plan to the City for approval. Now it's wait-and-see whether the legislature comes through on the casino bill that's apparently holding up everything.


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