South Loop learns how students can add life to growing neighborhood

Law student Jason Hitchings was stepping out of his South Loop dorm recently when he overheard a passerby mention that he was leaving his job as a clerk at a nearby firm. Hitchings, 25, saw his chance for a bit of networking on the busy State Street sidewalk and strode over to introduce himself. One thing led to another, and soon the vacated job was his.

Students hungry for opportunities in the big city are the latest wave of people to call the ever-evolving South Loop home. A new student housing complex, developed jointly by three universities with campuses in the neighborhood, opened in the fall of 2004, bringing nearly 2,000 new student residents to feed off the energy of an area as up-and-coming as they are.

South Loop man in front of Pacific Garden MissionOf course the iPod generation would discover the South Loop. The neighborhood, bordered roughly by Van Buren Street on the north, Cermak Road on the south, the river on the west, and the lake on the east, is a fascinating work-in-progress, just like its newest residents.

South Loop dwellers are carving diverse lifestyles out of a neighborhood that canny developers began shaping from a desolate industrial landscape of abandoned railway yards and forgotten printing houses 30 years ago. Starting with the conversion of old press buildings into cheap loft apartments, builders gradually sold professional, upwardly mobile Chicagoans on the idea of an intensely urban lifestyle, complete with a show-stopping front yard: the city skyline, Grant Park, Lake Michigan and the stately Museum Campus, all on their door step.

Dining at GiocoToday, the sky’s the limit. The South Loop is swept up in a phenomenal highrise boom. Cranes crowd the skyline and billboards touting new developments jostle for attention on every street. This was the most active condo market downtown in the first quarter of 2005, accounting for 37 percent of sales, according to housing analyst Appraisal Research Counselors, and it hasn’t slowed down since.

The Target in South LoopProximity to downtown remains the biggest perk. Buyers are drawn by the promise of life with granite countertops in newly constructed homesthat are walking distance from Loop offices and the city’s greatest cultural assets, real estate agents say.

But perhaps the most interesting attraction is that no other Chicago neighborhood offers such a sense of newness and possibility. With its diverse stock of housing, a broad range of people – students, young professionals, families and empty nesters – have chosen to live in the South Loop so that they can grow and evolve and effectively “custom build” their lives.

New energy, credibility

Commuting three hours each day between his home in the northwestern suburb of Palatine and DePaul University’s South Loop campus left Jason Hitchings little time outside his busy school schedule to socialize or advance his career prospects. That changed when he moved into University Center. DePaul and Roosevelt universities and Columbia College built the lively, modern highrise as a joint venture, sharing the high costs of downtown real estate development while creating sorely needed campus housing.

Billboards touting the latest South Loop developmentsThe facility opened its doors last year at State Street and Congress Parkway to 1,700 students, many from Chicago suburbs and nearby states such as Michigan and Minnesota. The South Loop is home to a range of academic institutions – John Marshall Law School, Robert Morris College and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology also have homes here – but until recently, South Loop campuses have mostly served commuters.

Student housing has been developing slowly for some time, but the opening of University Center and the conversion of the highrise at 2 East 8th Street to student housing have boosted the population by more than 3,000 in the last year alone. Suburban parents are adding to the trend, snatching up nearby condos as investment properties and installing their college-going offspring in highrises such as State Place, 1111 S. State St., and the 34-story highrise, 1111 Wabash.

Suddenly, students are everywhere in the South Loop. Rollerblading the lakefront trail, organizing charity drives, roaming nearby museums and networking – Frappuccinos in hand – on South State Street.

“It feels like we are almost edging into the professional sector,” Hitchings says. “It’s a case of being in the right place at the right time.”

The students’ impact in little more than a year has been remarkable, says Tom Fuechtmann, a consultant who studied the issue for the Chicago Loop Alliance. It’s obvious in things like the Potbelly franchise that opened at 542 S. Dearborn St. last November, or the 7-Eleven store at University Center, soon to be joined by a Cold Stone Creamery and a bakery – much-needed retail that’s injecting life into that sluggish end of State Street.

Last year alone, the regional economy reaped $58 million from the costs of running University Center and from spending by students who live in the facility, Fuechtmann says. Some 920 jobs were created in the South Loop, 600 at University Center and 300 in the local goods and services sector.

“The students have brought energy and credibility to the area,” says longtime Printers Row resident Jeff Thomas. “You see them coming out of the subway and it looks like a nice, safe area.”

And the students, in turn, have short trips to class through a neighborhood that’s become increasingly livable. In the last two years, the base of small shops and restaurants in the Printers Row area has been augmented with some major amenities, including the Jewel-Osco, at 1224 S. Wabash Ave., and a new Target, at 1154 S. Clark St. The neighborhood’s new residential developments often have a retail component, and some offer major amenities, such as the new 25,000-square-foot Multiplex health club and spa at State Place, 1111 S. State St.

A construction worker laying the foundation for a highriseDrinking holes, from Bar Louie, at 47 W. Polk St., to Kasey’s Tavern, at 701 S. Dearborn St., cater to locals, and there are several popular music venues, including HotHouse, at 31 E. Balbo Ave., Buddy Guy’s Legends, at 754 S. Wabash Ave., and The M Lounge, scheduled to open before the end of the year at 1520 S. Wabash Ave. But nightlife is not abundant. Fuechtmann and students interviewed for this story say they will be talking to the city about the need for more affordable late-night diners and entertainment.

Meanwhile, students are more likely to head out to a club in Lincoln Park or River North on Saturday night than to a South Loop establishment.

Serving the student population, however, may be easier said than done for merchants paying downtown prices.

“I’m one of the lowest-cost providers in the Loop but they say, ‘Mister, can you reduce the cost of your cheeseburger?'” says Thomas, who owns the Clark Street bar Blackies.

“But this isn’t Madison,” he adds, referring to the Wisconsin college town. “We have expensive property taxes.”

Thomas, whose father used to regale him at the breakfast table with tales of Blackies’ late-night visitors, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Betty Grable, has a different take on life these days in gentrified Printers Row. Breakfast is now one of his busiest shifts, serving the Mercedes-driving doctors and attorneys who own lofts nearby.

“Eggs Benedict is mandatory – in the old days my customers were just as happy with eggs over easy,” he smiles. He has a good rapport with his new clientele but says that because the area is becoming increasingly residential there is less daytime business and he misses the traffic of printing house workers.

“I miss the vitality; the neighborhood is so God-damn boring,” he says.

Highrise development soars

But if the soaring rate of highrise development is any gauge of vitality – at press time, New Homes counted 16 highrises either underway or on the drawing board in the South Loop – many would beg to differ.

South Loop highrises are being marketed to a range of tastes, and the buyers are primarily young professionals and empty nesters. For the hipster set there’s Vetro, a blue-tinted 31-story tower appropriately named after the Italian word for glass, planned at 601 S. Wells St. Pilates classes and nifty moveable glass interior walls aim for a trendy vibe. Nearby, for those whose tastes run to the more traditional, there’s Astoria Tower, a 31-story highrise planned for 8 E. 9th St., designed to evoke the art deco era, with a stepped exterior. It’s priced from the $160s to the $890s.

Gospel singer Mavis Staples at the Chicago Blues FestivalThe South Loop is generally more affordable than the Gold Coast, River North or Lincoln Park, and it has a broader range of housing stock and price points, says Gail Lissner, of housing analyst Appraisal Research Counselors. “It’s historically been lower [priced] than these other markets, but I think it’s gaining rapidly,” she says.

While some of the latest South Loop projects have put upward pressure on prices, comparatively affordable one-bedroom condos are available in older developments, such as Dearborn Park I, which broke ground in the late ’70s.

“You see a lot of 100 percent [zero down payment] loans. Couples with good jobs but not a lot of cash,” says Judy Howard, of Rubloff Residential Development.

Bonnie Sanchez-Carlson, executive director of the nonprofit Near South Planning Board, says developers are putting some affordable new projects on the market, and her organization works to ensure that lower-income residents aren’t displaced from the South Loop. The South Loop lost most of its stock of single-room occupancy housing during the last two decades, but a number of SRO buildings remain.

However, “the upper income is definitely coming into the mix now,” Sanchez-Carlson says.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Central Station community, where a slew of highrises and rowhouses, carved from the disused railway yards south of Grant Park, run down the South Loop’s spine. The planned-unit development is home to One Museum Park, which became the South Loop’s most luxurious planned highrise in the first half of 2005, when a number of units sold for more than $500 per square foot. Locals drink in lake views and advertisements for imported red wine as they jog leisurely down roads kept immaculate by city street cleaners.

Central Station’s most famous resident, Mayor Richard M. Daley, may be departing for a highrise overlooking Millennium Park, but the area he helped spark remains hot. Prospective buyers camped out from 4 a.m. on the opening day of sales for the newest highrise in The Enterprise Companies’ Museum Park project, 1400 Museum Park, in October, according to Michael Sullivan III, of Coldwell Banker, which is marketing the building. On that day alone, developer The Enterprise Companies sold more than 50 percent of the 260 units in the tower, the latest in Enterprise’s popular Museum Park community, which is part of Central Station. One-bedrooms at 1400 Museum Park started in the $260s, while three-bedrooms fetched prices in the mid $500s.

But some locals are nervous about the hype. Pensioner Ralph Green has lived in the HUD-subsidized Senior Suites on South Indiana Avenue since he suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes seven years ago.

Lucky Peterson at the Chicago Blues FestivalGreen, who enjoys wandering over to Soldier Field to hear the roar of the Bears games, worries his housing will some day be sold off, as property values and taxes rise. “It’s very disturbing to think that you might have to be rich to live here,” he says.

Link to South Side

Retail development has lagged far behind residential growth in the South Loop, but the highrise boom and steady population increase have caught the attention of big-box retailers. When Southgate Market arrives at Roosevelt Road and Canal Street in the latter part of 2006, locals who currently drive north to buy many of life’s basics, will have a corridor of mainstream retailers to choose from.

View of the Adler Planetarium and city skylineConfirmed tenants include upscale grocer Whole Foods, Designer Shoe Warehouse, Linens-n-Things and Office Depot, says developer David Hene, of JPS Interests. Staples and Home Depot plan to break ground in separate developments nearby.

These and other retail projects will continue to draw South Siders as the South Loop settles into its role as a major hub between downtown and Hyde Park. The colossal Riverside District, a 62-acre mixed-use community planned for the vacant land that runs south of Roosevelt Road to 16th Street, between Clark Street and the river, has the scale to provide major momentum to the neighborhood’s growth.

The mega-project conceived by Rezmar Development Group is slated for up to 4,700 residential units as well as new roads, retail, infrastructure, parks and a riverwalk. Rezmar suffered a setback when IKEA withdrew as anchor tenant for 670,000 square feet of retail space planned for the Riverside District, but in October, Rezmar sold the project to European conglomerate General Mediterranean.

Residential sales at Riverside should begin in 2006, with full occupancy within eight years, says Rezmar’s Alexandra Korompilas. The residential mix calls for units ranging from studios of 450 to 650 square feet, priced in the high $100s, to $3 million riverfront townhomes. Rezmar remains involved in the project, says Korompilas, who will sell and market its residential units.

Can the South Loop absorb these and the thousands more new homes in the pipeline?

Developers seem to think so. Mention the word “saturation,” and no one is ready to call it quits. Sullivan predicts at least 10 more years of activity. Sanchez-Carlson of the non-profit Near South Planning Board, says she thought the supply of developable land had dwindled, but has recently seen developers buying properties from owners she didn’t think would sell.

Beyond the new wave of dense skyscrapers, developers also are building low-rise housing in quiet South Loop enclaves like the historic Prairie District. These move-up homes are attracting buyers such as real estate agent Mark Kieras and his wife, Kim, an admissions officer at a city school. They say they have found the solution to an age-old dilemma: Mark wanted to live downtown, Kim, in the suburbs.

The pair swapped their Gold Coast highrise for a three-bedroom townhouse at 18th Street and Calumet Avenue nearly three years ago. Mark Kieras says he is frustrated that the city has been slow to roll out infrastructure improvements, such as upgrading old street lighting and sewer systems. But the pair is enjoying life in the Prairie District. It offers short bike rides to the lake but also “a quiet, suburban feel” in an area full of “couples who have kids and dogs, and couples who have cats and dogs,” laughs Kieras.

The large number of dog owners in the area signals to Sanchez-Carlson that a real community is taking shape. Dog owners are meeting, forming friendships and starting to talk about the need to improve the quality of life in the South Loop with things like neighborhood parks and dog runs, she says.

Probably the hottest topic of conversation is the state of the local restaurant scene. Watching the steadily developing 1300 block of South Wabash Avenue is a spectator sport around here. Yes, there’s Opera, Gioco, new Mexican eatery Zapatista and neighborhood bar, The Wabash Tap. There’s also Palaggi’s, at 1924 S. State St. And on Michigan Avenue, the converted Chicago Firehouse Restaurant has become a local favorite. But locals say they still don’t have enough casual dining options close to home and that they have to jump in the car for a wider selection of restaurants.

South Loop loyalty

New highrises and newcomers may be reshaping the neighborhood, but the South Loop is also building its population of long-term residents, who are moving on in life without moving out.

“People just identify as a South Looper,” says Judy Howard, of Rubloff.

John and Diane Jacoby with their two daughters Renee (left) and KyraSome couples are still shifting to older neighborhoods or the suburbs when they have children, but in the last few years, many have opted to stay.

Take attorneys John and Diane Jacoby. In 2003, after 10 years as South Loop loft-dwellers, they moved into a townhouse on East 18th Street with daughters Renee, now 9, and Kyra, 4. The South Loop’s surprisingly large stock of low-rise housing, concentrated in Dearborn Park, Central Station and the Prairie District, as well as scattered infill sites, provides young families with adequate space and privacy in comparatively affordable move-up homes. It’s an option that’s scarce or nonexistent in River North, the Gold Coast, the West Loop and other downtown neighborhoods, which are dominated by less family-friendly mid-rises and highrises.

Still, the decision to remain in the South Loop was a tough call for the Jacobys. Local private schools had lengthy waiting lists. But Jacoby was won over by the quality of education at South Loop Elementary School. Despite a history of poor performance, the school has made a dramatic comeback, thanks to a new principal and the efforts of Chicago Public Schools, Jacoby says.

Other parents are taking notice too. Last year, 60 children enrolled in a pre-school program that feeds into the elementary school. This year there were 80 children from an even mix of cultural backgrounds. Next year, 120 kids will be admitted and more schools will soon be needed, Jacoby says. His daughters have no shortage of play dates.

“We ride bikes in Soldier Field in summer and sled in the winter,” he adds. “I have season tickets to the Bears. It’s only an eight-minute walk to my seat.”

Another longtime South Looper who chose to stay in the neighborhood when he embarked on a new life is empty nester Frank Readus. The 63-year-old divorcee lived in the South Loop’s Dearborn Park community. He recently moved to a $640,000 three-bedroom “terrace residence” condo in a mid-rise at State Place after he found love with another empty nester, Alice Jennette, 61, whose husband died in 2001.

Buckingham FountainReadus, a duplex dweller, was adamant about staying in the South Loop. Jennette was tired of the continual maintenance of her single-family home in Marynook, on the South Side, but still wanted space.

“It’s not cheap here,” Jennette says. “We were concerned it was going to be an elitist area, but then the price of real estate is high all over Chicago.”

At State Place, the couple is surrounded by a mix of mostly young and often single black, white and Asian professionals. The pair enjoys cigars and wine with the friendly 30-something couple across the hall, concerts in Millennium Park and trips to Navy Pier.

“We are forging how we want to live, and we are having a ball,” Jennette says.

Brian Powers bought a condo for his son Justin in 1111 S. WabashJason Hitchings, the DePaul law student living in University Center, is part of a much younger demographic, but like Readus and Jennette, he too feels that life in the South Loop puts him in the thick of the action. If he were to stay in Chicago, Hitchings says, he also could see the South Loop as a place to put down roots, a neighborhood that could comfortably accommodate his changing needs as his life unfolds.

“I would have no problem putting my money down on one of those new condos here,” he says. “It would be a familiarity thing. It would be nice to look across the street and say to my child, ‘this is where I grew up’,” he adds. “I can’t wait to see this place in the next 10 years.”

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