Easy Street-erville

The popular Wave Swinger at Streeterville's Navy Pier

Boom in cutting-edge towers, new retail put neighborhood on map

It’s business as usual on a recent Tuesday at the Dominick’s Finer Foods on Grand Avenue in Streeterville. Shoppers cruise ready-to-eat turkey breasts hot off the rotisserie, grabbing sides of couscous or herb-glazed carrots along the way. Dinner is as good as ready before they’ve reached the checkout.

The phone rings at the in-house floral department. It’s the folks from the Jerry Springer Show, which is taped around the corner at the NBC Tower. Some guests are scheduled to get hitched in front of the studio audience this afternoon, and Springer’s gonna need five wedding bouquets, pronto. Floral designer Michael Brown, accustomed to such brushes with celebrity, doesn’t bat an eye.

Bartender Patrick Sterling mixes a martini at P.J. Clarke's at 302 E Illinois StThese days, however, Brown’s customers are more likely to be empty nesters who have downsized from houses in the suburbs to high-rise condos in Streeterville. The other day a lady wandered in feeling blue because, with the arrival of spring, she missed the big garden she’d left behind in the ‘burbs, Brown recalls. She bought a bunch of tulips to lift her spirits.

Dominick’s has slipped so seamlessly into the fabric of Streeterville that it’s hard to believe that the store, at 255 E. Grand Ave., has been open for only a couple of months.
The latest addition to Streeterville and its warm reception are certainly no surprise to those familiar with the neighborhood. The Streeterville landscape is transforming rapidly, and the supermarket giant clearly has done its homework.

“Dominick’s knows a residential high-rise boom when it sees one,” says Wynona Redmond, spokesperson for Dominick’s.

High-rise boom

“Boom” is right. In the last two years, Streeterville has emerged as one of Chicago’s hottest housing markets. At press time, New Homes counted at least 13 high-rise projects containing roughly 3,700 units in various stages of development. Last year, 1,512 condos were sold in Streeterville, up 43 percent from the number sold during 2004, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors.

During the past decade, Chicago has seen an influx of residents who want to live as close to the action downtown as possible. It’s hard to get closer than Streeterville, which feels more like Manhattan than any other neighborhood in the city.

Nowhere in Chicago is there a greater concentration of tourists, thanks to Navy Pier, and nowhere is there better shopping, thanks to Bloomies, Brooks Brothers, Armani, Gucci and the other high-end shops of the Magnificent Mile. No neighborhood has a greater feeling of density, whether you’re looking up to the countless condos, apartments and offices that create steep high-rise canyons, or down to a fleet of taxis thick enough to give Midtown a run for its money. Still in doubt? Check out that modern art museum that lately seems to be as much about rubbed elbows as smudged canvases.

A boat sails on Lake MichiganStreeterville residents have access to some of Chicago’s finest natural assets, and a few manmade ones as well. The neighborhood is framed by Lake Michigan on the east, the ritzy retail of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile on the west, the Chicago River on the south, and tony East Lake Shore Drive on the north.

“It’s a great location; I mean, this is like going to heaven,” says Gail Lissner of housing analyst Appraisal Research Counselors.

And who’d expect to find the Jerry Springer Show in heaven? A big part of Streeterville’s appeal for residents and visitors is its varied and energetic mix of cultural (and occasional trash-culture) attractions. The neighborhood is home to the John Hancock Center, Navy Pier, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Museum of Contemporary Art, along with some of the city’s top restaurants. Grand institutions such as Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have brought impressive buildings and thousands of employees and students to Streeterville.

Southern exposure

However, until a couple of years ago Streeterville’s market for new-construction condos was small compared to those in other downtown neighborhoods such as River North and the South Loop. Why the sudden high-rise boom?

Historically, the northern end of Streeterville has been more developed, home to the best known condo and apartment buildings and the big institutions. South of Ontario Street, Streeterville was dominated by sprawling parking lots and leftover, underutilized industrial sites. In the 1980s and 1990s property owners sought to zone this section of the neighborhood for high-rises, planning to fill it in with office towers and hotels, Lissner says. The idea faded when demand for downtown office space fizzled in the late 1980s, she says.

Carlos Salinas samples some meatloaf at the new Dominick's supermarket, at 255 E Grand Ave“As Chicago’s residential high-rise market has matured, developers have realized that they can build very large residential towers on these sites and the market will absorb them,” Lissner says.

Mega-projects

In early 2006, 11 of Streeterville’s 13 high-rise projects were slated for land south of Ontario Street. Two large mixed-use projects, Centrum Properties’ Cityfront Plaza and MCL Companies’ developments at River East, have been catalysts for the present boom in the area. Both projects have been in the works since the late 1990s. The Cityfront Plaza site originally was slated for R.M. Chin & Associates’ Grand Pier project, but the company ran into financial problems and sold the site to Centrum, leaving an eight-story garage and a Dominick’s as anchor retailer. The development of River East also was slowed by financial constraints. These delays explain why the downtown condo boom was later to arrive than in other neighborhoods.

But arrive it has. Centrum Properties is touting its Cityfront Plaza project as “a city within a city.” Over the next four or five years, Centrum plans to build three condo towers containing 1,000 housing units, a boutique hotel, restaurants and a spa on land bounded by Saint Clair Street, Illinois Street, Fairbanks Court and Grand Avenue. At press time, sales were underway for the first phase of the project, The Fairbanks, where condominiums were priced from the mid-$300s to the $500s.

Toddler Aidan Luhmann chases the tail of a furry friend at Navy PierRiver East is a large residential, hotel and retail community located north of the river between Columbus and Lake Shore drives. It includes MCL Companies’ two completed RiverView high-rises and its current ParkView development, along with River East Center, a mixed-use complex at Illinois Street and McClurg Court.

These mega-projects have inspired other developers to snatch up vacant or underused property in the southern half of Streeterville. Over the next few years, high-rise developments will transform the neighborhood between Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier. The developments include some of the city’s most cutting-edge “starchitect” projects and depending on your taste, some of the very best locations in Chicago.

Belgravia Group has spent years fine-tuning its plans for two towers on a coveted site on North Lake Shore Drive. After adjusting plans to appease neighborhood groups and the city, Belgravia unveiled 600 Lake Shore Drive, where condos are priced from the $370s to $1.73 million and have expansive lake and skyline views. Of the dozens of new towers rising in Chicago, only these two have Lake Shore Drive addresses.

Construction is underway at Urban R2 Development's 600 North Fairbanks, designed by Helmut Jahn.Given such premium locations, Streeterville’s new residential construction is setting prices on par with those in River North, says Lissner, of Appraisal Research Counselors.
In 2005, Streeterville’s median price for attached housing was $372,500, well above the citywide median of $285,000, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors.

New-construction condos are selling for $450 to $500-plus per square foot. That translates to about $350,000 for a typical one-bedroom in the neighborhood and more than $600,000 for a two-bedroom, Lissner says. Resales offer more affordable options, as do condo conversions. At press time, units were priced from the $190s to the $450s at Pearson on the Park, 222 E. Pearson St., the conversion of a 1960s apartment building at the northern end of the neighborhood.

Sticker shock

Streeterville isn’t a neighborhood normally associated with displacement, but given the price of new construction, some residents have raised this fear.

Lucky Strike Lanes at River East Center, 322 E Illinois StMike Ostrowski and his wife Carol Robinson moved from the suburbs into a rental apartment at Onterie Center, 446 E. Ontario St., three years ago to be closer to their downtown offices. Robinson worries that if Onterie Center ever converts to condos the couple won’t be able to afford a unit. Ostrowski, who works as an advice columnist for Playboy magazine, pales at home prices.

“I don’t want to sound like an old-fashioned curmudgeon or fuddy-duddy, but it just feels like it’s a little out of control right now,” Ostrowski says. “They need to make it affordable for the middle class. Not everybody can afford a $400,000 condo after assessments and taxes.”

“Statement” architecture

A couple takes a walk along Lake MichiganBut homebuyers who can afford to pay that much and more are showing interest in new luxury developments, including several high-profile projects that are turning Streeterville into “Streeter-cool” in the minds of otherwise jaded architecture buffs. The neighborhood, which has become a laboratory for progressive design, hasn’t seen this much hype since Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed his famous glass apartment buildings at 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive in the 1940s.

The Fordham Company has started taking reservations for homes at the planned 2,000-foot Fordham Spire, 420 E. North Water St. The dramatic, spiral design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (picture a giant, swirling corkscrew or drill bit) would be the tallest building in North America and has attracted a flurry of press attention. Prices and details for the project weren’t available at press time.

Renowned architect Helmut Jahn created a striking design for 600 North Fairbanks, a 41-story curvilinear glass tower that uses air rights to lean at a daring slant over a neighboring building. Developer Urban R2 broke ground on the tower in early 2006, and units were priced from the $330s to $2.3 million at press time.

Stacey Green (left) and Michelle Crawfod, of Jacksonville, Florida, enjoy a drink and view of the city at the Signature Lounge of the John Hancock Center, 875 N Michigan AveDeveloper Sutherland Pearsall has one progressive high-rise well underway in Streeterville and another on the way. The builder is constructing a sleek 26-story glass tower designed by Brininstool & Lynch at 550 St. Clair. It features clean lines and floor-to-ceiling glass in a design that gives a sense of the structure’s skeleton, manifested in strong columns. The condos range from the $200s for a studio to more than $1 million for the top three-bedroom. Another Sutherland project designed by Brininstool & Lynch, 535 St. Clair, is at an earlier stage, but it too has a beautifully transparent contemporary design, with floor-to-ceiling glass, a green roof and “winter gardens,” enclosed glass balconies.

Businessman and musician Chris Karabas, who lives in Wilmette, bought an in-town at 600 North Fairbanks so that his four-year-old twins could experience weekend getaways in the city. He talks of living “in a Jahn” in a manner reminiscent of residents of 860 and 880 North Lake Drive, who say they live “in a Mies.”

“In this building you are the view, which is almost as good as having one,” Karabas said. “And I love that my wife and I can walk right out onto Michigan Avenue and buy a coffee.”

Convenience retail

The striking stairway inside the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E Chicago AveKarabas may find that his new neighborhood is even more convenient than he imagined. For a long time, essential retail such as supermarkets and pharmacies lagged in Streeterville. However, as the spurt of high-rise construction attracts retail development, Streeterville is no longer just in a convenient location, it’s now a neighborhood equipped with the conveniences of life.

“We have 20 different bank branches within five to 10 blocks of where we live,” says Jim Houston, a retired businessman who moved to the neighborhood from Glen Ellyn 11 years ago with his wife and now is president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents.

The Dominick’s on Grand Avenue is in good company, with a Chase Bank, a Starbucks, a U.S. Cellular store and a dry cleaner in the same complex.

Chain retailers

A jogger on Oak Street BeachRiver East Center, the 260,000-square-foot complex at Illinois Street and McClurg Court, has brought a slew of mostly chain stores to the neighborhood in the last couple of years. Newcomers include an Embassy Suites hotel, a 21-screen AMC movie theater, the up-market U.K. fitness center Holmes Place Health Club and P.J. Clarke’s, an Irish pub and restaurant. Other arrivals include Fox & Obel Market, Walgreens and Max and Benny’s, an offshoot of the popular suburban Northbrook diner and deli. An outlet of the gourmet sandwich store Jimmy John’s has moved in, along with the trendy L.A.-based 10-pin bowling chain Lucky Strike Lanes.

On a recent Thursday night, the 36,000-square-foot Lucky Strike is not quite half full. The atmosphere is an odd hybrid of chic, urban nook and suburban sports bar-cum-nightclub. There’s a wine bar in one corner, and in the other an 18-lane bowling alley. Patrons lounge on leather couches sipping $8 cocktails and waiting their turn to bowl. More customers sit at restaurant tables, glued to a wall of high-resolution screens that are churning out Top 40 music videos and baseball games.

“It feels like the suburbs have come to the city,” one twenty-something man remarks to a friend.

Diverse mix

Despite the influx of chain stores, the neighborhood’s streetscape retains an eclectic flavor. On a Tuesday afternoon, a white stretch Hummer limousine barrels down a street past a woman lugging grocery bags and wearing gym shoes. Hole-in-the-wall diners serving gyros and the like stand on the same block as top-flight linen-tablecloth restaurants. On the block of Ohio Street east of Michigan Avenue, an astrology business offering $10 past-life readings is wedged between the Armenian restaurant Sayat Nova and a Gap Maternity store.

The northern end of Michigan Avenue is home to mainstream and high-end retailers including Water Tower Place, which has more than 100 specialty stores. Homebuyers who have a few million dollars to spare and fancy living above Bloomingdale’s, Gucci and Coach can buy a condo at The Residences at 900. JMB Realty’s development is a conversion of seven floors of the Bloomingdale’s Building, 900 N. Michigan Ave. At press time, units were priced from $1.2 million to $4.6 million.

Upscale Italian eatery Cafe Spiaggia, 980 N Michigan AveStreeterville’s dining scene is another draw. Les Nomades, 222 E. Ontario St., was originally a private club that was converted into a restaurant and is enjoying rave reviews. Viand is an upscale new restaurant that serves regional American fare at 165 E. Ontario St. Many consider Tru, or Tramonto Unlimited, 676 N. Saint Clair St., one of the best restaurants in the country.

Navy Pier plans

Shopping and dining may hold the spotlight on the western edge of Streeterville, but Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., and Lake Michigan hold center stage on the east side.

Navy Pier attracts eight million visitors annually, and the recreation and convention center looks set to get even busier. In early 2006 the Pier’s oversight body, The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, released an ambitious draft plan for expanding the facility. The plan, which has been circulated to residents and civic leaders for comment, calls for the creation of an 80,000-square-foot indoor water park, a new venue for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a marina, a floating hotel and two floating parking lots on Lake Michigan. The renovated Navy Pier also would include a monorail system, more restaurants, an expanded convention center and an artists’ gallery and workshop. Costs and funding hadn’t been determined at press time.

Empty nesters Mike Ostrowski and Carol Robinson say that one of the best things about their rental apartment at Onterie Center is that they can watch the Independence Day fireworks display at Navy Pier from their bedroom window.

Shopping on the Magnificent MileBut the couple ruefully notes that 2006 probably will be the last year that they enjoy front-row seats for the Fourth of July fireworks. Some time in 2007 the couple’s view of Navy Pier will be permanently blocked by one of Belgravia Group’s planned 600 Lake Shore Drive high-rises.

And therein lies the rub to life in Streeterville: when you live in a neighborhood that has everything, everyone else wants in, too.

“From spring to fall it gets so rowdy down here,” Robinson says. “That’s when it’s really hard for the locals who live here to get around because it’s so crowded.”

Concerned at the congestion caused by tourism and the high-rise boom, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents has drafted a Streeterville Neighborhood Plan. The document calls for improved pedestrian and bicycle paths, limits to parking in peak periods and more short-term parking. The blueprint isn’t legally binding, but SOAR has an impressive track record: Belgravia Group reconfigured plans for 600 North Lake Shore Drive after SOAR pointed out that the design cast deep shadows over Oak Street Beach.

“At a certain point God’s country is no longer God’s country when it becomes so congested that you can’t get around and you can’t see the sun,” says Jim Houston, SOAR’s president. “We are not at that point yet, but we could be headed in that direction.”

Gail Spreen is a longtime resident, vice president of SOAR, and the owner of a real estate and housing appraisal firm that specializes in the Streeterville market. Spreen says residents need to “keep an eye” on all the development to ensure that it is architecturally cohesive and sensitive to the neighborhood’s needs. But she also says she feels confident that Streeterville is on the right track.

“I think it’s very exciting,” Spreen says. “It’s vacant land, and it’s not like we can stop progress. This is the coolest place in the city to live; we need to just make sure it’s done right.”

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