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Massive expansion planned for O'Hare

'You won't need a Fitbit,' Emanuel says

Chicago Tribune/MCT

Airline commuters use the moving walkways at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Chicago Tribune/MCT Airline commuters use the moving walkways at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
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Chicago officials on Thursday unveiled five designs for a massive expansion of O’Hare International Airport, many with swooping roofs and some with quirky features like hammocks where travelers could take a nap before flights.

The proposals from top architects for the $8.5 billion expansion, whose centerpiece will be a new global terminal that combines domestic and international flights under one roof, are all sleekly modern.

Three would put naturalistic touches — clusters of trees, wood ceilings or patches of grass — inside the terminal.

The plans, which can be viewed online, at VoteORD21.com, at O’Hare and downtown at the Chicago Architecture Center, are broad-brush visions that leave unanswered nitty-gritty questions about security gates and other aspects of the passenger experience.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said that selecting an architect for the project is a top priority before he leaves office in May, but it’s unclear who will make that decision.

As of Wednesday evening, city officials had declined to release the names of the evaluation committee members who will rate the architects’ plans.

In an interview Wednesday, Emanuel said the expansion would combine Chicago’s tradition of excellence in architecture and aviation. Asked about the apparent lack of transparency in the evaluation process, the mayor replied that while he would “have an opinion” about which plan is best, the evaluation committee would do its job.

“We’re going to keep this aboveboard,” he said.

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Scheduled to open in 2028 and to be financed by airline ticket fees, the expansion will be the largest and most expensive terminal revamp in O’Hare’s 74-year history. It seeks to transform an airport with a reputation for gridlock, packed concourses and air-traffic delays.

The project also aims to help O’Hare catch up to other U.S. airports, such as Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International Airport, in the race to modernize facilities and reap the benefits of attracting more passengers and carriers.

“Operationally, O’Hare just isn’t nearly optimal in terms of the way aviation works today. It was designed in a completely different era,” said Seth Kaplan, editor of Airline Weekly, which covers the aviation industry.

The architects vying for the project include such marquee names as Santiago Calatrava, designer of the birdlike 2001 addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum as well as the unbuilt Chicago Spire; Jeanne Gang, best known for her curvy Aqua Tower; and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which gave Chicago the Willis and Trump towers.

Easier connections

The idea behind the 2.25 million-square-foot global terminal, which will replace O’Hare Terminal 2, is to make it easier for passengers using terminals 1 and 3 — the hubs of United and American airlines — to make connections between domestic and international flights.

Most passengers must hop on O’Hare’s people mover to make those connections.

“For the first time ever, you won’t need a Fitbit to make it around O’Hare,” the mayor said, referring to the activity-tracking products used by exercisers.

The expansion, which also will include two new passenger concourses, will increase the airport’s overall square footage to 8.9 million square feet from the current 5.5 million square feet, the mayor’s office said.

Emanuel predicted the increase will keep ticket prices down because more gates will create more competition among airlines operating at O’Hare.

The five proposals seek to update the facilities and image of an airport that took shape in the 1960s and once reigned as the world’s busiest, a title now claimed by Atlanta.

The designs are conceptual and the city did not release the cost of the individual proposals.

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All the designs stress the importance of O’Hare as a gateway to Chicago, with some making oblique references to the airport’s reputation as a human cattle pen.

Plans have been submitted by:

1 Fentress-EXP-Brook-Garza Joint Venture Partners, headed by the Denver-based architects of the tent-like Denver International Airport

2 Foster Epstein Moreno Joint Venture Partners, led by London-based Foster + Partners, which has designed several airports around the world as well as the sleek North Michigan Avenue Apple store

3 Studio ORD Joint Venture Partners, headed by Chicago’s Jeanne Gang

4. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which is teamed with ARUP, Ross Barney Architects and JGMA

5 Santiago Calatrava’s plan is the most extensive, encompassing not just the global terminal but a business complex with formal gardens that would remake the present site of parking facilities next to the terminals.

An online survey will allow the public to give feedback about the plans through Jan. 23.

In the 1988 architecture competition for the Harold Washington Library Center, the identity of jury members was made public and architects competing for the commission made public presentations to the jury. This time, however, the city is not identifying members of the evaluation committee and no public presentations are scheduled.

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