CHICAGO — The shades were drawn last month when a glittering array of architects presented their plans for the massive O’Hare International Airport expansion in a high-ceilinged downtown lecture hall. Other glass walls that would have let people peek in were papered over.
The architects included Zurich-based Santiago Calatrava, designer of the bird-shaped addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Chicago’s Jeanne Gang, best known for her curvaceous Aqua Tower.
At stake: A prestigious commission worth millions of dollars in fees and the right to reshape the core of the nation’s busiest airport.
The secretive deliberations hinted at what was to come: A selection process cloaked in confidentiality, leaving the public in the dark about such critical issues as whether their plans can be built on budget and how well (or not) the designs would serve the airlines and travelers. It has also led to rampant speculation, especially among the five competing architectural teams, about who might get the job and when the winner will be announced.
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Call it the Great O’Hare Guessing Game.
Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has made choosing the expansion architect a priority before he leaves office in May, insists he doesn’t know when he’ll announce the winner.
“I literally have no idea. This is being run by procurement,” Emanuel texted me Tuesday, referring to the city’s Department of Procurement Services, which handles the awarding of contracts. A spokeswoman for the department says that the winner will be announced before April 1.
Architectural insiders are also in the dark.
“I know nothing,” said Lynn Osmond, president of the Chicago Architecture Center, the nonprofit group that hosted the architects’ presentations at its new 111 E. Wacker Drive. headquarters.
The city’s desire for confidentiality was so strict that Osmond wasn’t allowed inside her own organization’s lecture hall to witness the presentations, she said. And the imposition of confidentiality pervaded the lecture hall itself.
In addition to the drawn shades and papered-over windows, the architects were not told the identities of the committee members to whom they were presenting their plans, people familiar with the deliberations said. Often in contests like this, such introductions are made, letting architects know an evaluation committee’s qualifications and areas of expertise.
“This whole process has been pretty weird,” said one person familiar with the deliberations, who asked not to be identified.
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The global terminal will replace O’Hare’s aging Terminal 2 and will handle domestic and international flights. The idea is to make it easier for passengers using O’Hare’s Terminals 1 and 3, the hubs of United and American airlines, to make connections between U.S. and overseas flights.
The terminal will form the heart of O’Hare’s $8.5 billion expansion, the largest and most expensive terminal revamp in the airport’s 74-year history.
The other teams competing for the project are led by Denver-based Curtis Fentress, whose credits include Denver’s tent-like airport; London-based Norman Foster, architect of Hong Kong’s international airport; Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which has designed major airports as well as the Willis and Trump Towers.
By displaying three-dimensional models of the competing plans at the architecture center, and allowing people to vote for their favorite design, city officials conveyed an image of transparency and public engagement.
But the selection process is not exactly an open book.
More than 41,000 people took part in the voting, according to the city’s Department of Aviation.
City officials believe the results, which they call “public feedback,” should only be made public when the selection of the winning architect is announced. Releasing the results now could “impede the work” of the city-appointed committee charged with evaluating the designs, Cathy Kwiatkowski, a spokeswoman for the procurement department, said in an email.
The question remains: Is the committee going to see the results now even if they’re not released to the public? And will the committee take the results into account?
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The city has also kept under wraps the identities of the committee members, who include city officials and airline representatives, on the grounds that naming them would subject them to lobbying.
Several people who attended the architects’ presentations, however, recognized Rebekah Scheinfeld, the city’s transportation commissioner, as one of the evaluation committee’s judges. Mike Claffey, a spokesman for the city’s transportation department, declined to comment.
Besides putting the competing architects on edge, the lack of information has led to a quiet public relations war, with the teams releasing online videos that tout their plans and relevant background. Foster’s, for example, notes that he is an airline pilot and shows him in a cockpit piloting a plane.
The vacuum also has led to speculation about the timing of the announcement of the winner. One theory, apparently shot down by Emanuel’s tweet, has it that the mayor will announce the winner before the Feb. 26 mayoral election that will winnow a large field to two finalists.
The theory’s proponents seized on the fact that the display of the global terminal models at the architecture center was extended to Feb. 17 from its scheduled closing date of Jan. 31. The models would have provided a good backdrop for an announcement, they figured.
In fact, the exhibition was extended at the architecture center’s request, Osmond said, adding that more than 3,000 people have viewed the display since it opened Jan. 17.
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A little-noticed wrinkle of the O’Hare contest is that it will result in the awarding of not one, but two design contracts — one for the global terminal, the other for two satellite concourses that will serve the terminal.
Once a contract is negotiated with the winning team, city officials have said, Chicago will enter negotiations with the second-place team for the other two concourses.
But such contracts tend to be enormously complex and require a long time to negotiate, according to architects who have done airport work.
That raises one of the biggest questions of the Great O’Hare Guessing Game: Whether a contract will be signed by the time Emanuel leaves office — and whether his successor will be bound to back the winning design.