Chicago’s Irish Spire

An artist’s impression of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s Spire

By Abdon PallaschAugust / September 2007

Irishman to build tallest building in Western Hemisphere.

Dublin native Garrett Kelleher, 46, aspires to erect the biggest, most expensive skyscraper ever built on the shores of Lake Michigan. The beautiful, curving “Spire” is the creation of Zurich-based Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Kelleher, a father of six – number 7 is on the way – says he doesn’t need to sell any condominiums in advance to guarantee financing like most projects of this scale require.

The Anglo-Irish Bank has guaranteed financing for 70 percent of the venture estimated to be a $2 billion project, and that’s good enough for Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Chicago City Council, which gave Kelleher their blessing in May.

Kelleher hired Daley’s brother’s law firm to represent him before the City Council, which certainly didn’t hurt.

Skeptics warn that Kelleher may start construction on the project, then have to stop at 20 stories up if millionaires don’t materialize to buy the pricy condominium units. Kelleher won’t give any estimate on how much the units will cost.
Mayor Daley says he’s not worried.

“Every time you build a building, you have to trust people it’s going to get done. This is going to be an exciting building,” he said.
Chicago has been smarting since 1996 when the Council on Tall Buildings made a controversial ruling that a shorter building with a taller spire on top in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, displaced the Sears Tower as the world’s tallest building.

The 2,000-foot-tall Spire won’t win back the “World’s Tallest” honors formerly held by the Sears Tower – a 2,300-foot-tall building is set to open in Dubai in 2008. But if it’s built, the Spire will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and will dwarf Chicago’s Sears Tower, John Hancock and Aon Center.

Kelleher and Daley hope it will be ready to greet the 2016 Summer Olympics, which Daley and Aon founder Patrick Ryan (Aon is Gaelic for “one”) are trying to lure to Chicago.

A Dublin dentist’s son, Kelleher first came to Chicago as teenager to play tennis. He played on Trinity College’s team until he left the school without earning a degree. (Last year he and a partner won the Irish National over-45s doubles championship.)

Kelleher came back to Chicago in the 1980s as a painter and re-habber of three flats and started a company that painted buildings. The company failed to pay taxes and had a lien on it until it was called to Kelleher’s attention by a Chicago business newspaper in April, 2007.

Kelleher made a name for himself when he returned to Dublin in 1996 and his Shelbourne Development Co. owned the Virgin Megastore on Aston Quay at the base of the O’Connell Street Bridge. He developed projects in Dublin, London, Brussels and France. Still, his name was not all that well known outside development circles.

Despite an estimated net worth of $750 million, the Irish Independent said he was “practically unknown” in a profile earlier this year. Requests for interviews were always turned down by his people, who said, “Mr. Kelleher does not do press interviews.”

But the massive attention of the Spire project and his purchase this year for $50 million of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Athletics football club have forced him to hold public meetings in Chicago, where he has turned on the Irish charm to win over skeptical neighbors of the proposed Spire.

Kelleher has had to confront the press and face questions of how he plans to finance this audacious undertaking. He admits none of his developments so far have been on this scale and he is “pushing the envelope” of his experience.

Kelleher inherited the project from Christopher Carley, who could not get the financing to make the project work.

Chicago Sun-Times commercial real estate columnist David Roeder has called Kelleher’s proposal “financially illogical to the extreme,” saying he will need to charge $2,000 a square foot to pay off the $2 billion building in a market where the absolute top rate now is $1,200 a square foot for high-end condos. But Kelleher told Roeder he will market the units “here and in New York, in London, in Dublin, in Paris, in Madrid, in Barcelona, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Hong Kong, Japan, Beijing, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Melbourne, etc.” He believes there is a market out there of people willing to pay top dollar for a prestigious address.

Kelleher showed his commitment this year by buying an $8.5 million mansion on Astor Street, which, at least until the completion of The Spire on Lake Shore Drive, remains Chicago’s most prestigious address.

In keeping with his close-to-the-vest style, Kelleher declines to say when or if he will hold a groundbreaking ceremony.

He did announce in June that he had purchased 34 steeel and concrete caissons which will be drilled 120 feet into
bedrock to support the tower. Construction equipment was on-site in June ready to start digging. ♦

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