Return of the loft

Winthrop offers rare find at Printers Row Lofts

It was not so long ago that if a development didn’t have “loft” in the name, Chicago home buyers weren’t interested. Dozens upon dozens of stolid old warehouses, factories and offices were converted to chic condominiums across the city, and in the mid- to late ’90s, buyers snapped them up just as fast as developers could say “urban charm.”

The appeal was easy to see: the character of rough-hewn timber beams, exposed brick, spiral ductwork and oversized windows set these living spaces apart from the vanilla boxes offered in most contemporary buildings. Most important of all, lofts offered a feeling of space. Buyers soon realized that 1,100 square feet can feel like 2,000 when it’s configured in open layouts with partial-height walls and soaring ceilings.

Eventually, loft developments became victims of their own popularity. The supply of commercial buildings suitable for conversion even in pioneering areas became depleted, and the heavy flow of loft projects became a trickle. Meanwhile, developers of brand new construction took a page from lofts’ popularity and began building new “lofts,” with higher ceilings and floor plans that were more open and creative than the those found in the typical condo, though of course, it’s impossible to duplicate the massively overbuilt industrial structures of 100 years ago given the cost of labor and materials today.

So when one of the last rental loft buildings in the South Loop’s Printers Row came on the market, developer Robert Horner didn’t spend a lot of time debating the sale.

“One of the things that really attracted us to this was that there’s not a lot of these left,” says Horner, partners with Ibrahim Shihadeh in Winthrop Properties. “Everyone now is doing new-construction lofts, as are we. But to have true lofts still available in a building with all this character and a great façade, we didn’t think very long about it when it came on the market. We jumped right on it.”

Rezmar converted the eight-story former printing house at 732 S. Financial into rental lofts, known as Polk Street Station, back in 1996. Horner says the fact that that conversion was so recent and creative (thanks to renovation architect Phil Kupritz) makes the current conversion into the condos of Printers Row Lofts that much easier.

“The original architecture for the conversion was quite good and was one of the things that interested us,” Horner says. “There are some curved walls and glass block to bring additional light into units, some partial height walls, open floor plans. The glass block often is used to create a den or second bedrooms.”

That urbane look is laid over the rugged industrial character of the original 1908 Art Nouveau building. The lofts have exposed heavy timber beams, hardwood floors, ceiling heights of 11 to 12 feet, exposed brick, exposed ductwork and fireplaces.

The 138 units range from studios to two-bedrooms with two baths. A number of condos on the top floors and the first two floors are duplexes.

Buyers can choose from four different levels of finishes, Horner says, each with its own spruce-up package and price point. The most basic, or “as is” package, includes the kind of work done on a typical apartment turnover, thorough cleaning and a fresh paint job. The Silver level also includes a new laminated counter, a new kitchen sink and new carpeting. The Gold package gives buyers completely new kitchens with granite counters, black appliances, Italian cabinets and new bathrooms. The highest, or Platinum, package is similar to the Gold but with higher grade finishes.

At press time, base prices ranged from the $160s to the $350s, an exceptionally low price point for a new development in the heart of downtown. “Close to 50 percent” of units at Printers Row Lofts are priced at less than $200,000. Horner says he consciously positioned the project to appeal to renters, who are finding it much easier to become buyers now that interest rates have fallen to 40-year lows.
“Absolutely our target is first-time buyers,” Horner says. “Currently, most tenants in the building could carry a 90 percent mortgage on their units for the same amount as their rent.”

The ability to own at Printers Row Lofts for the same monthly payment many renters pay their landlords is a strong selling point, according to Horner, especially given the building’s prime downtown location.
“All around our building are a number of parking lots used by people who work in the Loop,” Horner says. “Our buyers are home already at this spot, and these people are getting in cars there to drive home. It’s literally a 10 minute walk to the Board of Trade.”

Printers Row, with its quaint bookshops, cafes, bars and restaurants, has grown into the most livable corner of the growing South Loop. The first rough lofts here were converted decades ago, giving the neighborhood a head start over newer enclaves such as Central Station and Dearborn Park II, to the south. It is a continuation of the Loop, but the presence of strong street-level retail, heavy foot traffic and a concentration of loft condos in the one-time printing district give it a flavor unique among city neighborhoods.

At press time, Winthrop Properties was announcing the conversion program to current renters in the building and planned to begin marketing to the general public March 1. Horner plans to begin delivering units sometime in June or July, although buyers who need to move in sooner could rent a vacant loft in the building until their unit was ready.