When John O’Donnell retired as an executive of the John Buck Co. in 2010 with more than 30 years and 40 million sq ft of investment, development and redevelopment experience under his belt, he didn’t envision starting another real estate company that would create iconic buildings, mostly along the Chicago River. And now that company, Riverside Investment and Development, has been named ENR Midwest’s Owner of the Year.

“I retired and I meant to retire,” O’Donnell says. “I was not planning on starting a company. What I was going to do was much of what I did at the Buck Co.—buy and sell property. What came up first was these two parcels of land that I was knowledgeable about. We had pursued them awhile at Buck. This was 2010, and if it wasn’t at the very bottom of the recession, it was just when the market was starting to come back up.”

Recession Born

Chicago real estate prices had not recovered from the 2008 recession, and the two parcels O’Donnell acquired were what became Riverside’s first two projects: Chicago and Main in Evanston, Ill., and the project for which the company is now most known, 150 North Riverside.

For decades, the less-than-two-acre sliver of land that would eventually become the home of 150 North Riverside, now a star of architecture boat tours, sat vacant and unwanted, deemed unbuildable by developers and architects alike. The problems stemmed from a site that offered only 47 ft of space to build a tower due to seven active Amtrak rail lines on the west and the city’s requirement for a riverwalk to the east.

“I honestly didn’t know how bad it was,” O’Donnell says. “When I was bidding on the land with Buck, prior to that, Amtrak had much more generous rules. When Boeing headquarters was built and other buildings along the river, Amtrak allowed them to move tracks to place columns. By the time I got it they were saying you couldn’t put any structure at all within 16 feet of the centerline of a track. That essentially stops you from building.”

A core-supported design from architect Goettsch Partners and structural engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates solved the riddle.

“I actually ran into John on Michigan Avenue [back in 2010] and, at that point, he was more or less on his own and he said, ‘I’m thinking of going after that site on the river.’ We had tried to do something on it 10-15 years ago with the Buck Co.,’’ recalls James Goettsch, chairman, CEO and design director of Goettsch Partners. “I said, ‘Of course.’ Once we began to analyze where you could and could not put a structure, I have to say it didn’t take a long time to figure out what needed to be done.”

Having worked with Goettsch on a previous John Buck Co. project at 111 S. Wacker, where the initial design called for a core-supported structure without perimeter columns in its original plan back in 2002, O’Donnell asked Geottsch if that design that had a very square core could be applied to the Riverside site. Goettsch lit up and knew exactly what he was talking about.

“There’s no genius to it,” quips O’Donnell. “It’s just remembering things you’ve done before.”

Take Me to the River

Since then, Riverside Investment and Development has grown from that small three-man team to a multifaceted real estate firm focused on the pursuit of complex development opportunities. Riverside has been named the master developer of the $1-billion redevelopment of Chicago’s Union Station in large part because of its successful working relationship with Amtrak.

Riverside’s next high-rise project, a 1.35-million-sq-ft tower at 110 N. Wacker, is going through site preparations for a May groundbreaking. The project is designed by Goettsch with open space and its relation to the river in mind. Roughly half of the site’s area will be public space, including an open-air park at its northern end as well as a 45-ft-wide riverwalk at the 800-ft-tall tower’s western edge. The Chicago River was, again, a focal point. Bank of America recently signed on as the office tower’s anchor tenant.

Goettsch referred to the building as a companion piece to 150 N. Riverside as both high-rises show what can be built on the river, even with site constraints such as the Amtrak lines at the one and the park planned for the other. Goettsch, MKA and Riverside’s next planned project, 700 W. Chicago, is even more river-centric. It is a seven-acre development with more than 1,000 ft of river frontage for an urban campus to be composed of 1.5 million sq ft of residential and loft office towers. The central campus, if approved, would have 4.5 acres of open space and riverwalk, designed to include outdoor dining, a great lawn, a town square and amphitheater seating for gatherings and entertainment.

“When I first came to Chicago in 1970, the office buildings being built were the Aon Center, the State of Illinois Center, NBC Tower—so many buildings were being built on the East Side of the Loop,” Goettsch says. “The Wacker Drive sites, the train stations were always there. There has been an awakening of development along the river. The movement toward the riverwalk has made the river the visual front door to our buildings even though you enter on the opposite side of most buildings. One way or another, it is a different view of our city when you’re down there. I never imagined the riverwalk would be so successful.”

Retirement vs. Retrenchment

As a result of the work, O’Donnell has become something he never sought to be: CEO of a major Chicago real estate company. He says that the people working for him now have made operating a real estate company easier, with no risk in hiring as about half the company are veterans from his days at Buck. He still points to the way he and his core team looked at Chicago real estate back in 2010 as the root of Riverside’s success.

“The world is changing and the attractiveness of sites is changing because the recruiting population and the population some tenants are looking for is more spread out than it was before in neighborhoods,” O’Donnell says. “Now, the North Branch [of the Chicago River] corridor is dead center to these high-density neighborhoods. We looked at that differently from the beginning.”