Friday, August 7, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nature, Commerce Achieve Balance At New Sears Park


HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. - Nearly two decades after it topped Chicago's skyline with the world's tallest building, Sears, Roebuck and Co. aims to make a similar impact on suburban office park design.

At Prairie Stone, the site of Sears' new retailing headquarters, deer and raccoon roam restored prairies and herons pick their way through marshes where endangered yellow-headed blackbirds trill.

Ecologists call the 786-acre business park Sears is building in Hoffman Estates a model of nature and commerce in balance. It's a far cry from downtown Chicago and a big change for the 5,000 Sears Merchandise Group employees, who began moving this week from the looming, black Sears Tower to the cluster of silver blocks that have risen amid fields and forests 35 miles to the northwest.

Sears will keep its corporate headquarters in the tower. The merchandise group's move is expected to take 16 weeks and will involve 750 truck loads of office equipment.

Despite staggering employee transit problems and opposition from some neighboring suburbs, Sears Chairman Edward Brennan declared the new 200-acre complex "a great concept."

He said its horizontal layout - the tallest building is six floors - will be better for business than the stacked confines of the 110-story tower.

"We are a store, and it's very important that we interact as a store. A vertical environment, such as we have at the tower, really doesn't lend itself to that," Brennan said.

Sears expects to save money, although it won't say how much, by operating at Prairie Stone. It also will receive income from yet-to-be-signed tenants at the 23 other sites.

Cost savings also figured into Sears' decision to design into the business park, formerly a low-lying soybean field, more than 200 acres of reconstructed prairie and wetlands. Sears expanded the wetlands area from 77 acres to 90, exceeding a federal requirement to replace marshland destroyed by construction.

Other companies, including Deere & Co. in Moline and Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., have used natural landscaping, but Prairie Stone is the first office park to incorporate the concept, said James Patchett, an associate with the project's Chicago-based landscaper, Johnson, Johnson & Roy.

"It is the thread that ties the entire site together," he said.

The design is rooted in water management, a problem that arises any time the earth is built up or covered by concrete. The rain that runs off hard or elevated surfaces must be directed somewhere to avoid flooding the immediate surroundings.

Hey & Associates Inc., an environmental consulting company, pointed out to Sears that wetlands are natural water managers. They collect and filter runoff in addition to providing wildlife habitat.

Sears still needed to create several small lakes around its complex to capture the tainted runoff from roofs and parking lots. But on land not designated for development, Sears concluded it could save money in the long run by replanting low-maintenance native flora and expanding the existing wetlands, which were choked with vegetation nourished by farm fertilizer.

As a bonus, the 73-acre strip of reconstructed prairie and marshland that bisects the property would become a wildlife corridor between two forest preserves that border the office park.

"Ecologically, it was the only way to go," Sears spokesman Guy Eberhart said.

The alternative was conventional landscaping: manicured lawns, high-maintenance shrubbery and retaining ponds. Sears chose that approach for its office grounds, and other Prairie Stone tenants may, too.

But there will be wide swaths of prairie along roadways, and 13 of the 24 parcels will be surrounded by native landscaping. All will have prairie grasses or wetlands on at least two sides.

"Keep in mind that this is a business park," said Hey & Associates ecologist Vince Mosca. "We may not create a Yellowstone, but it certainly is a far step from the traditional method."

Environmental groups applauded the attention to conservation.

"The thinking behind it is quite a fundamental change," said Steve Packard, science director for the Illinois chapter of the The Nature Conservancy, a private group that works to save the habitat of endangered species.

Waid Vanderpoel of Citizens for Conservation said the restored prairie will be friendlier to wildlife than the fallow field on which it was built.

"This will be a real, functioning Illinois native area that will attract lots and lots of birds and wildlife. It sets a tone, a model, for others," he said.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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