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Beautiful Renderings Cost Nothing and Keep Stakeholders In a Trance -- But For How Long?
If you are a bureaucrat in the City Department of Planning, or a city council member in a city that has no money, and you therefore have nothing to do, but are still getting paid (somehow) to show up, it can't hurt to approve grandiose projects that will get Blair Kamin and the Tribune all excited, even if there's no realistic way some of these things will happen in less than 10 year's time -- 20 year's time if we're pessimistic. That's the kind of hole we're in. It's about this big:
[source: Curbed Chicago http://chicago.curbed.com/archives/2010/10/09/chicago-spire-developer-hit-with-77m-foreclosure-suit.php]
Other cases abound. Remember the exotic 90 floor Shangri La Hotel on Wacker and Clark, the one that is now an empty 26 story shell that will most likely be the first Loop building to be demolished in almost half a century? "Solstice in the Park," the cutting edge green building that was supposed to go up on the corner of Cornell and 56th, doesn't even have a hole in the ground, though it is probably demolished in concept. Optimists will note that it is apparently still listing 8 units for sale, with construction to start "in 2012".
The new blog Curbed Chicago gives a sense of the split personality that still pervades Chicago's real estate world, with posts detailing the ever bigger graveyard of pre-crash projects like the New City "mixed-use development [that] was to have 490 residential units and 370,000 square feet of retail" at North and Clyborn, alongside euphoric posts and splashy renderings of what we supposedly can still expect "as soon as the market turns around," as if the Great Recession is just another downturn and we just need to wait for consumers to start spending again.
[source: Curbed Chicago http://chicago.curbed.com/archives/2010/11/01/the-next-generation-of-proposed-office-towers-in-the-loop.php#more]
The above monster, together with three others, adds "more than 2.5 million square feet of commercial space" to the market in Chicago, suggesting just how far some of the local real estate moguls still have to fall to get to post-crash reality. Loathe to sacrifice the model that has driven its success since the reign of the first Mayor Daley and his famous commitment to the downtown business elite, for these guys it is still onward and upward. Witness the Tribune Blair Kamin in a review of a recently approved "plan" for the vast (bigger than the Loop) abandoned US Steel Yard:
Imagine: Sleek residential high-rises lining a vast industrial slip where ore boats delivered the raw materials for steel-making. A new park built over the foundations of a massive open hearth. A broad extension of South Shore Drive that would be an urban boulevard. Parks and alleys that would channel stormwater into Lake Michigan instead of the city’s sewers.
I am imagining it, and that's likely all I will be able to do as far as this project is concerned for about another 25 years. Reality check, anyone?
So when I see glossy renderings for more local projects, like the Vermilion Development Inc plans for Harper Court (12-story, 150,000-square-foot office building, about 100,000 square feet for retailers and parking for 435), or even the more humble "Shops and Lofts" at 47th and Cottage Grove, which will supposedly host an Aldi and 140 units of affordable and CHA rental housing, I have to wonder.
The truth is, and it hurts to say this, as much as the University of Chicago wants to build out the neighborhood at Harper Court and 53rd, they may have missed their chance. That chance was a 20-year window of opportunity that, for some reason or another, was squandered in the likes of Doctors Hospital type fiascoes in which a major institutional power got its arse whooped in the valleys of the local neighborhood Afghanistan. We are likely to live with things as they now stand until our kids move away to college, we move out of the neighborhood for other jobs, or we are dead.
Such gaps in the geological record of American real estate are not unheard of. Around 50th and Cornell, near the popular Istria cafe, there are a cluster of high-rise buildings built in the 1920s. They are gorgeous and speak to the confidence of the age that built them, loaded with the kinds of finishes and craftsmanship that you don't find in residential buildings today. Most of these towers only have windows on two or three sides, because the developers expected neighboring towers of equal ambition and height to go up beside them.
Those other towers never materialized, and the window-less building faces are now mute brick walls to the rest of the neighborhood. The next buildings to appear were built roughly a quarter century later, in the 1950s.
We may be looking at something comparable this time around, and it's not clear that Antheus or the University of Chicago or anybody else will be able to convince enough Sam Zell-type testosterone jockeys, shell-shocked banks or private equity high-rollers to put money into projects that will add hundreds of condos or offices that, right now, no one wants. The suburban empty nesters that were once selling their split-level homes to buy condos in the South Loop probably aren't going to make any moves for a while.
So, by all means, make no small plans, as is only right in the city of Daniel Burnham. But someone should do us the favor of explaining how all of this stuff will get built in an economy that is not going to reset at "2006" anytime soon, if ever.