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River City Returns to Its Roots

The building’s transformation into apartments is the largest bulk sale condo deconversion in Chicago history.

Photo: Chicago Tribune

Bertrand Goldberg’s River City, an S-shaped concrete megastructure in the South Loop, has officially returned to its roots as an apartment complex. Last month, leasing began on newly refreshed rental units at the iconic Brutalist structure, which for years had served exclusively as a condo building.

The building at 800 South Wells was acquired last year in a joint venture by the Wolcott Group, Marc Realty, and Ruttenberg Gordon Investments, who repositioned its condos as rental units to capitalize on the apartment boom in the greater Loop.

Goldberg originally envisioned River City as a much larger complex, and the magnum opus in his ambitious “city within a city” concept. A spiritual successor to his twin-tower Marina City, River City was conceived as multiple 72-story skyscrapers, all connected by sky bridges. The buildings, Goldberg imagined, would house tens of thousands of residents and represent new urban design paradigm: democracy through architecture.

Over a period of years, though, the plan was scaled back. In 1986, what finally opened was a 449-unit riverfront development with a harbor, post office, and unique communal spaces — namely a sprawling indoor atrium and walkway dubbed “River Road.”

Photo: AJ LaTrace

Like Marina City before it, River City stood out for its raw concrete aesthetic, which utilized curving walls to maximize space. In the 2000s, the building was bought and converted into for-sale units during the pre-recession condo boom. Its move back to a rental building marks the largest bulk sale condo deconversion in Chicago history.

Rent prices at River City range from $1,495 to $1,695 a month for a studio, $1,695 to $2,095 for a one-bedroom, and $3,150 to $3,595 for a three-bedroom townhouse-style residence along River Road.

One of the first changes prospective renters might notice is a fresh coat of white paint on the walls flanking River Road. It’s the first time the space has ever been painted — an act considered a crime against architecture among preservationists and Brutalist diehards.

Lead leasing agent Aaron Galvin of Luxury Living Chicago is well aware of the controversy. But ultimately, it was one of a handful of changes the team felt necessary to make the hulking complex appear more inviting.

“When we started thinking about getting involved in this project, we had to understand how can we look at this and make it that much better — [to] augment the space while still honoring the past,” Galvin says. “It’s about creating bright, open, airy spaces for people to live, work, and play.”

The team tapped property management firm Blue Star to reimagine River City’s communal spaces. Meanwhile, interior designer Devon Wegman of Devon Grace Interiors led the charge on the apartments. She started by opening up the units’ floor plans, then added contemporary finishes, stainless steel appliances, and clean white walls.

Rendering: Devon Grace Interiors/River City

“On first impression, the units felt crowded and were very segmented and broken up with galley-style kitchens that led to a dark feeling,” Grace says of the apartments, some of which hadn’t been touched since the ’80s. “The goal was to respect the original design but make it more practical for today’s lifestyle.”

But it’s the communal spaces that are undergoing the the greatest transformation. Escalators in the main lobby will be replaced with a spiral staircase and new seating for working, socializing, and waiting for ride shares. River Road will also be updated with new tree planters and benches to give the winding walkway some contrast and space for tenants to congregate.

Rendering: Blue Star Properties/River City.

Only a few dozen units have been fully renovated, but crews continue prepping River City’s 449 apartments for new tenants. Move-ins formally began at the beginning of the month.

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