West Loop watch: is one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods growing fast enough?

A West Loop restaurant

A neighborhood on the cusp of “emerging” is by now such a familiar notion in real estate that we hardly pay attention when we hear the story.

You already know all the elements: a diminishing industrial base (thinned further by relocation of businesses to more modern facilities) leaves a glut of industrial building stock, which is discovered by bohemian types,
Alhambria Palace who are followed by art galleries, which are followed by hip restaurants and clubs, which are followed by upscale residents, who may or may not be followed, ultimately, by retail, entertainment and recreational uses of the kind that, generally, make a place livable.

Think New York’s SoHo, Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties, or even Cleveland’s Flats.

Do I have to tell you that Chicago’s West Loop, which stretches roughly from the Chicago River on the east to Ashland Avenue on the west, and from Grand Avenue on the north to the Eisenhower Expressway on the south, is on the cusp? The real question is whether it will spill over that cusp and become a “real neighborhood.”

It has made serious strides in that direction. If you haven’t been to the West Loop since the early ’90s, you might be astonished by its streets today. Endless loft buildings have been converted to chic condos, including many that previously had been converted to rental apartments.

That quiet building boom (industrial buildings often don’t look dramatically different when they go residential) was complemented by major improvements in infrastructure, which gained momentum with the 1996 Democratic Convention on the Near West Side. The Daley administration strategically refurbished the routes attendees would likely take from the Loop to the United Center, and the West Loop reaped the benefits, with resurfaced streets, median planters, new sidewalks and landscaping.

The Shishkabob Man

At the same time, restaurateur Jerry Kleiner was pioneering a strip along Randolph Street that would grow into one of the city’s premiere dining destinations.

The loft boom was followed by construction of new mid-rise condo buildings, which have proliferated. Intended to be similar in style and scale to the existing stock of loft buildings, these newer red brick structures line block after West Loop block (punctuated by the rare townhouse project), and the thousands of residents they brought helped draw much-needed retail.

Not long ago, even the most ardent fans of the West Loop complained about the lack of a major grocery store, a decent coffee shop, a nice salon, a state-of-the-art gym, a stylish boutique, good restaurants and the other amenities taken for granted in more developed neighborhoods.

Diners enjoy an outdoor meal

Today, the West Loop has those things, at least a sprinkling of them. Whether it can continue to draw enough amenities – and the residents and visitors that will allow them to succeed – remain open questions.

Steady growth

From 1990 to 2006, developers unveiled around 6,300 new-construction condos in the West Loop, which was second only to the South Loop in creation of new homes, according to housing analyst Appraisal Research Counselors.

Pricing reflects that residential growth. During the first five months of 2007, the median price for condos and townhouses in the West Loop was $335,000, up nearly 9 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois sales figures compiled by Patrick Hawkins, an agent with Property Consultants Realty. But an average market time of 311 days, compared to a citywide average of 119 days, also reflects the large numbers of new and recent homes competing for sale here.

Lately, West Loop development has shown important shifts in direction. Projects such as Zen, Pure, Mod and Emerald are bringing a distinctly modern aesthetic to the neighborhood with glass, metals and clean lines. The Thrush Companies is planning a 155-unit condo building for a site at Madison Street and Racine Avenue. The modern design, by Brininstool & Lynch, is heavy on glass, metal and concrete, with a strong horizontal emphasis.

These recent developments are offering much-needed relief from their mid-rise predecessors, which were watched closely by neighborhood group West Loop Gate (now the West Loop Community Organization) to see that they respected the lofty look of their older neighbors.

West Loop condos

Whether or not you agree with that goal, the effect was a string of buildings that suffered from their similarity. The new variety is welcomed by many West Loop watchers, as is the greater density in some of these developments. The Thrush Companies new 740 Fulton, for example, is a 14-story tower with more than 130 units. Emerald’s twin 12-story towers will include more than 200 units, and the Zen mid-rise has more than 80 condos.

Not everyone in the neighborhood, though, appreciates greater density, and some grumble about construction of any high-rise, even a tower of 10 or 14 stories, comparative shorties in the Chicago skyline. Others feel that the only way to create a true neighborhood fabric is to build population and foot traffic on blocks that still feel sparse through denser development.

Still quiet

Maybe five years ago, one of the city’s cheapo furniture retailers ran a television spot in which a guy wanders the deserted streets of the city, yelling “Where is everybody” For purposes of the spot, they’re all supposed to be at the cheapo furniture retailer’s big sale, but he might have been walking around the streets of the West Loop on any given Saturday afternoon. Despite all the development, there isn’t much activity on the street.

The pedestrian experience is at the core of what defines urban life. If you live where you can leave your house to have a pair of shoes fixed or buy some toothpaste or get a bagel and a cup of coffee without having to get in a car, you live in an urban place (or a hotel, but you get the idea). And lack of the pedestrian experience is what most people complain about in the West Loop.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t any pedestrian experience, it’s just more limited than what you might expect in the heart of the city.

In 2004, after their last child left the nest, Robin and Garry Zimmerman moved from Deerfield to Skybridge, at 1 S. Halsted St. They are definitely sold on the convenience. Garry walks to work in the Loop (he’s a diamond dealer), they love the restaurants on Randolph, and Robin is a big fan of wholesale vendors like Rubino’s fish market, which sells at retail too.

And although they walk to Millennium Park and the East Bank Club from their place at Madison and Halsted, she points out that part of the location’s appeal is that even when you have to drive, there’s very little traffic in the neighborhood. “We’re right on the expressway and can get anywhere in minutes.”

The only downside, according to Robin: the lack of green space. As suburbanites, she says, “we were so used to having private, outdoor space. We really miss it.”

Collage neighborhood

The West Loop isn’t what you would call a cohesive whole. Most Chicago neighborhoods have fairly consistent characters, with uniform housing stock and a commercial center – or at least some kind of arterial focus – such as Clark Street in Andersonville. The West Loop, on the other hand, has multiple personalities.

Boy launching off a trampoline

Fulton Market has its own identity, demarcated by the Lake Street el from the restaurant / gallery district along Randolph and Washington east of Peoria. Then there’s “Greek Town,” the stretch of Halsted between Madison and Van Buren streets – a place that Greeks long ago abandoned for Morton Grove and Glenview, although their restaurants have lingered.

There’s also something you could call the undifferentiated inner core, which covers most everything south of Randolph and west of, say, Sangamon, except for the Jackson Boulevard landmark district of stately Victorian rowhouses (and the adjacent wannabe stuff built in the ’90s), on the western edge of this area. Here, you also find a heavy institutional presence: the Chicago Police Academy, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, and the 911 Emergency Communications Center.

The neighborhood’s daunting challenge is to create a residential infrastructure from scratch in an area that, apart from a couple of pockets, never was residential. Eric Sedler, an issues management consultant who is president of the West Loop Community Organization, concedes that “in the West Loop, we don’t have any obviously defined retail corridors.” But he also says that the layout provides a singular flavor.

“The mix of commercial and residential makes it unique and multi-faceted. It’s something we’re really interested in maintaining,” Sedler says.

Strange bedfellows

That mix has also generated some conflict between the commercial and residential interests. In Fulton Market, where meatpackers and fishmongers still ply their trade, residents complain about the noisy trucks in the daytime, while food vendors complain about residents parking in loading zones. Condo residents complain about late night party people emerging from the Victor Hotel and the latest hot boite, Lumen (hardcore partiers tend to leave just about the time the food trucks that the residents complain about start arriving).

Meanwhile, tony design showrooms – the Casati Gallery and Morlen Sinoway Atelier – and a cluster of galleries add panache to the area while trying to co-exist with the rest of the street. There are development questions: should buildings stay vacant for lack of commercial tenants, or should they be converted to housing – or torn down and replaced with new construction? Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) floated the idea of down-zoning the strip to prevent additional residential development but appears to have tabled that plan.

Sedler says that “the proper planning approach in Fulton Market should be evolutionary, taking into account what’s already there. Any new development there can’t be in direct conflict with existing businesses.” He admits there has to be some coordination of uses at various times of day. “The reality is that Fulton Market has a lot vacant, and no one has any interest in the market fading away,” he says.

Neighborhood growth

Outside of Fulton Market, the mix is less contentious, but there’s still not much street life. Realtor Jeff Payne, of BestChicagoProperties.com, who moved to the neighborhood in 2000 from Atlanta after a brief stopover in Oak Park, thinks it’s getting a lot better.

Payne ticks off the number of new places that have opened: not just one but two Starbucks, the independent West Gate Café, and the requisite salons, dry cleaners, convenience stores, Dunkin Donuts, and even a women’s clothing and accessories boutique called Ouest (the French word for “west,” of course; the store sells only French-made goods, from the likes of Sonia Rykiel and Yves Saint Laurent).

West Loop resident watering her plants

Payne wants to refute the idea that the West Loop is a transitional place – a stopover on the way to another neighborhood.

“All the time, I hear people say that the West Loop is for people who don’t know Chicago. It’s a completely inaccurate stereotype. The West Loop has an edginess that you don’t have in Lake View.”

Indeed, although any comparison between New York and Chicago has its own set of problems, it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that the West Loop is probably more like New York’s Tribeca than anywhere else.

And it’s well worth noting that while there isn’t the critical mass of art galleries you see in River North, the West Loop group centered around Washington and Peoria Streets is impressive. Rhona Hoffman, 112 N. Peoria St., and Donald Young, 953 W. Washington St., are, by most accounts, two of the three most important dealers in the city (Richard Gray is the third), with Carrie Secrist, 937 W. Washington St., and Peter Miller, above Hoffman on Peoria, not far behind.

Enough stuff?

Still, you can find any number of Chicagoans who lived in the area and then moved on because they felt something was missing. Liv Berger, who owns the Pilates studio Body Endeavors, had lived in Lake View and Lincoln Park for years before she moved to 1000 W. Washington, one of the West Loop’s marquee loft conversions, in 2004. Her motivation? Price. The loft was her first home purchase, and she got the best bang for her buck in the West Loop.

But after about two years, she missed the amenities she had taken for granted in her old neighborhoods. “I really missed greenery,” she says, “not to mention shops. There was nothing to walk to, and I felt trapped in a little box.”

Last year, she and her boyfriend bought a single-family house in Logan Square, and she’s thrilled with the move. “There’s so much here. I walk everywhere and feel like I’m outside all the time.”

Anne and Mike Ranallo’s path was similar. The couple had lived in Lincoln Park until 1989, then moved to Cleveland before coming back to Chicago in 1999. They too were lured to the West Loop by prices lower than those in neighborhoods they considered more desirable, but also by the neighborhood’s possibilities – and proximity to Mike’s Loop law firm.

But after six years, the changes just weren’t coming fast enough, and they bought a house in Bucktown, which she says, “has all the stuff that the west loop hasn’t developed. It’s dense and vibrant and there are people around at all times of the day and night. It really feels like a 24-hour neighborhood.”

Building trends

Notwithstanding those who have gone elsewhere, developers seem to believe plenty of newcomers will continue to come to the neighborhood, and they are building furiously despite the citywide downturn in sales. Alex Till, a Baird & Warner agent who describes himself as a “Brit who loved Chicago so much, I stayed for good,” says that “although there’s a lot of inventory in the West Loop, you find new construction on almost every corner.”

As a result, you still get more for your money in the West Loop than in some other central neighborhoods. There’s a healthy mix of loft conversions and new construction, which ranges from townhouse to soft loft to more mainstream condo buildings. Prices vary widely, but you can still find one-bedroom units in new condo buildings in the mid-$200s, occasionally lower than that.

Many of the recent planning decisions in the West Loop – higher densities, mixing residential with ground-level retail, underground parking – are hallmarks of New Urbanism, a movement that encourages walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. If the retail space hasn’t filled out quite the way developers hoped, it may all be a question of time as new construction continues to evolve here.

The almost completed Zen, at 225 S. Sangamon St., designed by VOA Associates and winner of New Homes’ 2006 award for best new mid-rise, has shaped up as a serene and handsome presence on the street. VB1224, at 1224 W. Van Buren St., is a conversion supervised by architects Bauhs, Dring, Seglin, Main, but its new glass skin provides an elegant contrast with its masonry frame and makes a handsome modern addition to the neighborhood.

One of West Loop's popular art galleries

Eagerly anticipated are the twin towers of the Emerald development at 123 S. Green St., designed by Pappageorge Haymes, and the prismatic facades in the renderings of a development called “Pure” (I can’t figure out the name either), at 1021 W. Madison St., which looks like it will be a real standout.

Maybe the West Loop is never going to be Lincoln Park or Lake View or Bucktown – and maybe that’s OK. Jeff Payne sums it up. “The neighborhood is fascinating. It has a little bit of almost everything. The days when you could call yourself a pioneer may be gone,” he says, “but as the density increases, it’s just getting better and better.

“I think we’re about 50 percent there.”

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