Heightened tensions

A pick-up game at Johnny's Icehouse, 1350 W Madison St

With West Loop development looking up, residents fight new high-rises

I’m standing at the Amtrak line at Racine Avenue and Hubbard Street in the West Loop, feeling as if I’m about to wander into a dusty country town instead of one of Chicago’s liveliest neighborhoods. Birds chirp furiously overhead and there isn’t a soul in sight, but to the east, I can hear the faint beep of a truck reversing.

I follow the sound onto Fulton Market and suddenly find myself in the parallel universe that is the West Loop. Men in white coats are reversing forklifts bearing meat carcasses past avant-garde art galleries and upscale restaurants.

I marvel at a street where the culinary options range from a $1.95 grilled cheese sandwich washed down with an Old Style at Dino’s Morgan Inn to the dining-as-theater drama of upscale Moto. Chef Homaro Cantu’s menu ranges from soup-filled syringes to hot ice cream. If Cantu’s 10-course meal doesn’t satisfy diners, they can always chow down on the menu itself, which is made of parmesan-flavored rice paper, inscribed with soy “ink” and framed with puffed rice and freezer-dried shallots.

Lunch at Athena Greek Restaurant, 212 S Halsted StThe West Loop is home to the wholesalers that supply food for the city and to some of the finest restaurants serving it. Facilities for the homeless operate alongside million-dollar lofts, and top art galleries sell original work just blocks from a religious shop whose paintings were made by the thousands in China.

Diversity created the West Loop, but even the disparate parts that would seem most complementary (restaurants and a meat market, for example) live in tension. Like an eclectic band of roommates forced into a shared apartment, various neighborhood contingents have made the best of things, trying to keep the peace and looking for common ground when possible, though beneath the surface, their interests are often at odds.

For years, the main tension in the West Loop centered on the right mix of housing and industry. Now that residents are here to stay, this neighborhood of lofts and mid-rises is debating whether or not it should open the door to high-rise development. And long-simmering tensions between homebuilding and wholesalers remain as residential developers continue to expand, in some cases not just to the edge of industry, but into the blocks at its heart.

Growing pains

Fifteen years ago, there was no question about the West Loop’s identity. The area, bounded roughly by Grand Avenue on the north, Ashland Avenue on the west, the Eisenhower Expressway on the south and the river on the east, was a gritty industrial enclave populated by the meat markets and wholesalers that feed Chicago.

Important industry remained, but droves of manufacturers had left the area by the ’80s, and the stock of aging industrial buildings they left behind sat underutilized until developers began quietly converting them into office and apartment lofts. The growth of the neighborhood’s residential base went largely unnoticed – the old commercial buildings didn’t look much different after they converted to apartments – and the city ignored the outdated, in some cases crumbling, neighborhood infrastructure.

The 1996 Democratic Convention, held on the Near West Side, was a watershed for the West Loop. The Daley administration made some cosmetic changes along the routes that would bring conventioneers from the Loop to the United Center, and once the process started, there was no turning back. At the same time, restaurateur Jerry Kleiner was establishing the beginnings of what would become restaurant row on Randolph Street, believing that if he built it, they would indeed come.

Condo boom

During the last decade, builders have added a flurry of new-construction mid-rise condo buildings to the West Loop’s base of lofts, making it one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Chicago.

Angel Pancheco and Charles Long at the Victor Hotel, 311 N Sangamon StThe neighborhood accounted for 21 percent of downtown’s new-home sales during the first quarter of 2006, second only to the South Loop, according to housing analyst Appraisal Research Counselors. The average sales price of a condo in the West Loop during 2005 was $366,020, according to Kevin Knepp, of Keller Williams Realty.

Most of the prime loft buildings outside of the industrial blocks around Fulton Market already have been converted to residential use, though true loft projects still crop up. W Developments is marketing Odyssey Lofts, a former cold storage facility at 775 W. Jackson Blvd., where loft condos range from the $220s to the $620s, and the Tenley Group is selling lofts at the Tailor at Jackson, 847 W. Jackson Blvd. The former textile factory, built in the 1920s, features bespectacled tailors peering from the building’s terra cotta façade and loft condos priced from the $200s. In a typical West Loop flourish, the building’s most recent owner, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, will maintain a gallery on the premises.

Such loft projects have become rare in a neighborhood now dominated by new construction, often with “loft-like” features. In an effort to blend in with the existing loft stock and appease neighborhood residents, developers constructed a string of red brick mid-rises that showed little variety or imagination beginning in the ’90s. There has been more variety lately, and a number of glass-heavy contemporary projects are on the horizon. Oculus Development’s mid-rise Zen, 225 S. Sangamon St., is a prime example. The 82-unit condo building features a progressive design with tinted floor-to-ceiling glass set in metal frames punctuated with gray textured masonry, rows of recessed balconies and a decorative open canopy.

High society

Developers would like to add even more variety to the West Loop’s building stock in the form of new high-rises. As land prices have risen and the city has seen a boom in downtown high-rises, builders have lobbied in earnest for new towers in the West Loop.

A shopper browses at the boutique Koros, 1019 W Lake StThe influential West Loop Community Organization so far has been successful, with a couple of exceptions, in blocking developments taller than 115 feet in the most residential part of the neighborhood, west of the Kennedy Expressway. Vocal residents argue that high-rises would be out of scale with the loft and new-construction mid-rises that dominate this part of the West Loop and spoil its character.

East of the Kennedy Expressway, high-rises ranging from Jameson Development’s Jefferson Tower, 200 N. Jefferson St., to Mesirow Financial’s new 15-story development, R+D659, 659 W. Randolph St., are underway. The West Loop Community Organization generally has not opposed tall buildings in this area, which already has a number of high-rises and is more closely linked to the Loop.

Skybridge, at 1 N. Halsted St., was the first high-rise built west of the expressway, but its location on the expressway’s western edge and a critically acclaimed design lowered opposition to its height. But some residents complain that Skybridge also set a precedent and might have opened the floodgates to new high-rises.

Community opposition

Senco Properties, in a joint venture with Harlem Irving Companies and New Frontier Companies, recently announced Emerald, a two-tower development designed by Pappageorge / Haymes, for 123 S. Green St. Condos at Emerald were priced from the $250s to the $380s at press time. At 12 stories, these buildings barely qualify as high-rises, but Emerald technically will be only the second development this tall west of the Kennedy.

Olympic Meat Market, 810 W Randolph StThe West Loop Community Organization’s executive director, Eric Sedler, mentions several other proposals for high-rises on sites west of the Kennedy. These include one by Terrapin Properties at Madison and Halsted streets and one by New West Realty for a site on the 1200 block of Jackson Boulevard. Some of the developers in question couldn’t be reached, while others declined comment.

But some builders are getting the community’s message loud and clear. At press time, a spokesperson for New West Realty told New Homes that the company was reworking the details of a proposed West Loop development after feedback from the neighborhood. She said New West hadn’t decided if project changes might mean nixing high-rise plans in favor of a shorter development.

Sedler says most residents want to retain the mid-rise aesthetic of the West Loop and feel that the neighborhood can’t handle the population new high-rises would bring. “How can you ask residents to absorb 1,000 more units when we still have a lack of parking and a lack of parks?” he says.

Many fear the kind of high-rise boom that’s underway in the South Loop.

“It’s funny to say this, because the West Loop is so industrial,” says Margo Chambers, who lives in a neighborhood loft with her husband, Tony, and daughter, Sloane. “But it has more of a neighborhood feel to us than the South Loop.”

The high-rise development SkybridgeRetail therapy

Despite that “neighborhood feel,” locals say they lack some of the neighborhood amenities that other communities take for granted. Basic retail, for starters. The West Loop is filled with fashionable restaurants and hip art galleries, but where do you go when you just need a sandwich, some cough medicine or a one-of-a-kind dress? Local pharmacies and sandwich shops keep surprisingly limited hours on weekends, and residents say it’s hard to meet simple needs without leaving the West Loop.

Some of the same residents who complain about a lack of retail, however, also oppose the denser projects that would help attract commercial development, builders say. Developers are keenly aware that locals opposed to development of the 39-story Skybridge high-rise softened once they realized a Dominick’s grocery store would occupy the ground floor.

It’s an argument that isn’t lost on Jon Hardin, of Terrapin Properties, the developer rumored to be considering a high-rise project on a site at Madison and Halsted streets (Hardin would not confirm or comment on the possibility of a Terrapin high-rise in the West Loop). Increased density might be necessary to attract large retailers like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond, Hardin says. Terrapin has built three mid-rise condo projects in the neighborhood and attracted vital but small commercial tenants, such as Blockbuster, Starbucks and Pockets.

“We may have to do a building of more than 10 stories in order to get the density in the West Loop to support the retail everybody wants,” Hardin says.

Sedler disagrees. West Loopers don’t want big-box retailers in the neighborhood, he says, but smaller street-friendly stores. “In their heart of hearts, people would like to see the kind of retail that’s on Damen Avenue in Bucktown,” he says. “The top criterion is day-to-day retail that makes the West Loop a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.”

Lack of parks

Dave Plomin and his daughter Karma, 3, playing at Skinner Park, 1331 W Adams StParks also are high on the West Loop wish list. The neighborhood has Skinner Park, 1331 W. Adams St., and Union Park, 228 S. Racine Ave., but both are too far for many residents to comfortably walk to. On the bright side, the Chicago Park District recently purchased a block of land at Adams and Sangamon streets for a new park.

Mothers like Pam Harkness and Margo Chambers are mulling over whether to stay in the West Loop now that they have families, and green space is a factor. “Having a baby and living in a loft can be challenging,” says Chambers. “We have a nice big roof deck that our daughter can play on, but you can’t put a swing-set up there.”

The West Loop has seen some construction of townhouses, which can be more family-friendly than condos, but the percentage is small. Plenty of families do live here, but that’s not the first thing most Chicagoans picture when they think of the West Loop.

The neighborhood once known primarily as the home of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and Greek Town has become a hipster haven. Hipsters with money, mind you, the kind who can afford dinner at Blackbird followed by bottle service at Reserve. Buoyed by standbys such as Jerry Kleiner’s Marche and Red Light restaurants, the neighborhood dining scene has continued to grow with newer options, including Butter, 130 S. Green St.; Rushmore, 1023 W. Lake St.; and Avec, 615 W. Randolph St.

Kleiner too is keeping foodies and club-goers on their toes with two newer ventures, the Latin-flavored Carnivale, 702 W. Fulton Market, and the Victor Hotel, 311 N. Sangamon St. At The Victor, Kleiner has turned an old cold-storage facility into a meat-market of the upscale variety. Patrons, dressed to kill, sample charcuterie plates and sashimi tuna at a swank bar lined with magnums of Veuve Clicquot.

Kim Smith If the drinks at The Victor aren’t pricey enough, Reserve, 858 W. Lake St., has you covered. The club catapulted into the style pages of the New York Times last year when word of its $950 Ruby Red cocktail reached the hipper-than-thou East Coast. Rest assured, the drink works hard for the money – a potent blend of vodka, champagne, pomegranate liqueur and orange juice. Oh, and try not to swallow the Grade-A ruby lying in the bottom of the glass.

Coming of age

Gem-garnished cocktails may not have worked their way onto the menu in humbler pockets of the West Loop, like the young Fulton River District, but it’s only a matter of time. Until the mid-1990s, this area, bounded roughly by the river, the Kennedy Expressway, and Kinzie and Randolph streets, was a desolate patchwork of old railroad and manufacturing land.

Construction is underway at Terrapin Properties' 901 MadisonA handful of developers, including Jameson Realty Group, MCZ Development and Belgravia Group, began building new condos and townhouses and converting warehouses into lofts. The stakes have been raised with projects like Jameson’s Jefferson Tower, a 24-story high-rise with nearly 200 units.

The name of the Fulton River District hasn’t quite seeped into the consciousness of most Chicagoans, but an upcoming major retail development could change that when it opens in the fall of 2006.

U.S. Equities is building the $47 million MetraMarket on a site bounded by Washington, Lake, Canal and Clinton streets, adjacent to Metra’s Ogilvie Transportation Center. The Bensidoun family, which develops and manages French-style markets in Paris and the U.S., has signed as anchor tenant, and the market will host 30 vendors selling fresh and gourmet food. The project also will feature restaurants and retailers, including a CVS pharmacy, a dry cleaner and a gourmet chocolate store.

A Jewel supermarket is scheduled to break ground nearby, at Desplaines and Kinzie streets, in 2006.

Growth spurt

As the Fulton River District makes strides, Fulton Market, west of Halsted, is experiencing its own growth spurt.

For some, this pocket, with its industrial flavor and urban milieu, has a romantic appeal. Camela Christopher and Liz Morrell are at Jupiter Outpost, a cafe on Fulton Market, discussing the area’s future. Morrell, and Christopher, a video editor who is dressed in black leather knee-high boots and has a shock of delicately curled hot-pink hair, ponder the significance of a Starbucks opening at 520 N. Ogden Ave., on the edge of the neighborhood.

Joshua Height, a local artist who combs the industrial dumpsters for metal and wooden castoffs for his art“A piece of me loves it; a piece of me wishes things would stay in transition,” Morrell says. “I don’t want to lose the reason it was attractive in the first place. It feels nice to be some place where I feel like everybody in the city is getting fed off this street.”

Not everyone shares Morrell’s rosy view of the neighborhood’s market culture. Some residents have complained that the smell of rotting meat wafts past their condos in summertime, and that they are woken up by the hum of trucks in the early hours.

Wholesalers have their gripes too. They express frustration with homeowners who park their cars in industrial loading zones or complain about the hum of refrigeration trucks after moving next door to poultry processors. Tensions peaked in early 2006 when sparring interests began sicking city inspectors on each other.

In an effort to curb the battle, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) proposed an ordinance that would have down-zoned land bounded by Halsted and Randolph streets and Fulton Market and Ogden Avenue from commercial to limited manufacturing / business park. When tensions seemed to subside in early 2006, Burnett deferred a hearing on the ordinance.

Despite their differences, many West Loopers have found common ground, says Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph / Fulton Market Association. Romanelli’s group was established to lobby for wholesalers’ rights when developers began building homes in the West Loop.

Romanelli says protecting industry remains the organization’s top priority, but these days the group also has joined forces with homeowners and retailers to ask the city for improvements such as diagonal parking on congested Sangamon Street. The disparate groups also are lobbying the CTA to build a green line el stop on Morgan Street near Lake Street, he says.

Crafting a life

Diners at Follia, an upscale Italian restaurant, at 953 Fulton MarketIf anyone typifies a spirit of integration and collaboration in the West Loop, it’s artist Joshua Height, who lives and works in a three-story converted fortune cookie factory on the 1100 block of Fulton Market with his wife, Kate Edwards. The couple lives in a loft on the top floor, and Height runs his custom furniture business, Brickermade, on the first floor. The company produces furniture and what Height calls “functional art.”

The artist’s industrial neighbors give him quirky castoffs like antique wooden conveyor carts, old metal pallets and odd pieces of timber, which Height welds and saws, fashioning funky side tables, bed frames and wine racks. The artist has transformed an old water tank into a table and some Salvation Army leather coats into throw cushions.

Edwards says that when she and her husband moved into the Fulton Market in 1999, Height never dreamed he would create pieces of furniture and works of art by recycling the detritus of his industrial neighbors.

“He loves everything about his neighborhood. He loves that the meatpackers call him when they are throwing out stuff and give him the ability to cherry-pick the garbage,” Edwards says. Tony local establishments like Randolph Wine Cellars, 1415 W. Randolph St., have purchased Height’s uniquely West Loop creations for display. “Well-off residents in the West Loop pay for the things he creates because his works define the community,” Edwards says.

Somewhere in Height’s combining of old and new, industrial and sublime, into unified works of art there’s a metaphor, and perhaps a lesson, for the West Loop.

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