'Manhattanization' is changing the face of downtown Chicago

Twenty-five years ago, a stroll south down Wabash Avenue toward the Chicago River on the Near North Side of Chicago was sooty and uneventful.

A highlight might have been the aroma of fresh-baked deep-dish pizza wafting from Uno’s and Due’s, legendary pizzerias housed in two Victorian buildings that still stand on Wabash Avenue between Ohio Street and Grand Avenue. Nearby, stood the aging Medina Temple and the landmark Tree Studios, an artist and writer’s haven at State and Ohio streets.

Then you’d stroll pass a series of rundown loft buildings and a couple of newer residential highrises before the Wabash Avenue bridge came into view – flanked by the squat Chicago Sun-Times Building on the left and the IBM Building, on the right.

A decade or so earlier, before Mies van der Rohe designed the stately IBM Building, the riverfront site was a parking lot dotted with three-story buildings, including Gitano, a rowdy flamenco nightclub.

Today, if you walk south down Wabash Avenue toward the river in what is now called River North, it’s like strolling through the bottom of a dark highrise canyon in Manhattan. And the bumper-to-bumper traffic makes the neighborhood nearly as congested as Midtown New York.

Uno’s and Due’s are still there, with lines out the door on weekends. Medina Temple has been transformed into an upscale shopping mall, and the glittering Shops at North Bridge spans Grand Avenue between Michigan and Wabash avenues. Today, the rents at the famed Tree Studios are too lofty for most artists and writers.

Downtown Chicago is changing. The skyline’s rearranging, and experts say it’s all part of the “Manhattanization” of the Windy City as it slowly transforms into a world-class city of luxury highrise condominiums and apartments from a blue-collar bungalow and two-flat town formerly known as the “City of Big Shoulders.”

The eventual “Manhattanization of Chicago” was a concept first suggested in the early 1980s, when visionary real estate developer Tom Rosenberg uttered those words while giving this writer a tour of rows of highrise apartments he was building on urban renewal sites along LaSalle Street, land where mansions once had been wedged between the Gold Coast and the Cabrini-Green public housing projects.

Apparently, Rosenberg decided the trend wasn’t developing fast enough. A few years later, he headed to the West Coast to become one of the most successful movie producers in Hollywood.

But it is apparent today that Rosenberg’s script for Chicago was of Academy-Award quality. Highrise man is gradually replacing Chicago’s bungalow man, especially in the downtown lakefront neighborhoods as Chicagoans become more and more like New Yorkers.

Take that same stroll down Wabash to the Chicago River today and you will find the Sun-Times Building gone and the first construction work underway on the huge Trump Tower project, soon to be the newest New York-style skyscraper icon on the Windy City skyline.

Cross the bridge to a reborn State Street and you’ll find it’s vibrant and alive again thanks to thousands of resident students and “in-towners” who are buying highrise condominiums on State Street, Wabash Avenue and Michigan Avenue.

But if you keep walking on State past the Marshall Field’s store, you’ll see yet another sign of Manhattanization. In a New York minute, the Field’s store is expected to be renamed “Macy’s.” Chicago may be buying into Trump Tower at $1,000 a square foot, but experts say Macy’s may be the marketing mistake of the new millennium.

On the upside, downtown Chicago again has street life, culture and a wonderful pulse of prosperity.

Experts say weekend residents and tourists – some from Chicago suburbs and some even from the Big Apple – are flocking here in droves. And a growing number of neighborhood people also want to live downtown.

They shop on State Street and along Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile,” tour Millennium Park, visit the Art Institute and the Museum Campus. They dine at their choice of hundreds of restaurants, are entertained at more than 65 theaters as well as dozens of nightclubs and concert halls, and shop at hundreds of upscale boutiques, shops and malls.

Despite the inevitable recasting of Chicago in the towering architectural tradition of New York, the Windy City still has a few unique icons of its own to cheer about – in addition to the winning White Sox and the also-ran Cubs.

Let’s applaud Burnham for our miles and miles of green parkland framed by a blue Lake Michigan, the vision to develop an expanding new housing market in emerging off-the-lake neighborhoods, and an uplifting “back-to-the-city” psychology that seems to growing daily.

That may be part of the reason displaced New Yorkers are starting to say: “I love Chicago.”

Real estate columnist and media consultant Don DeBat has written about Chicago-area housing and mortgage markets since 1968. He is chief executive officer of DeBat Media, Inc., www.dondebat.net.

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