South Loop grows up

Teenagers hang out at a skateboard facility in Grant Park.

South Loop night out: more options than you think

Bigger developments bring bigger amenities – and some growing pains – in a booming neighborhood

Story by Alison Soltau  |  Photography by Carlos J. Ortiz

Developer Keith Giles remembers wading through a pool of rats in the basement of a former factory on the 1300 block of South Wabash Avenue a decade ago, spurred by a hunch that he could turn the building into a place people would be proud to call home.

Giles wasn’t the first developer to venture into these parts, but he was among the earliest, and at the time, being a developer in the South Loop required some serious pioneering spirit.

In Printers Row, which runs north from Polk Street, developers had been converting old printing houses into lofts for years and the evolution of the neighborhood was well underway. But the area south of Roosevelt Road was a wasteland of warehouses, tired rail yards, parking lots and the occasional flophouse, along with a smattering of low-rise residential developments.

Giles transformed the old factory into Filmworks Lofts, scratched the names of his sons Aaron, then 6, and Samuel, 3, into a slab of cement at Filmworks and moved on to another South Loop project, trusting that for a location walking distance to Loop offices, the lake and Grant Park, the golden rule of real estate – location, location, location – would hold true.

“The area always intrigued me, being so close to the Loop and the lake,” Giles says. “It seemed to make complete sense as a long-term neighborhood.”

Ten years later, the passage of time and the foot traffic on the pavement at Filmworks have almost erased Aaron and Samuel’s names from the sidewalk. The pair are teenagers, and Giles has watched with pride as his sons – and the South Loop neighborhood he helped nurture – have grown up.

Cole Robertson checks out an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, 600 S. Michigan Ave.

Rapid growth

The South Loop, bounded roughly by Jackson Street, the lake, Cermak Road and the Chicago River, now recalls a beautiful but awkward teenager experiencing a rapid growth spurt with all of the attendant confusion, hesitation and heady abandon.

The neighborhood’s many charms – its proximity to the stately Museum Campus, the lakefront, Soldier Field and the bustling Loop – have lured developers and buyers in droves, and in 2006, the South Loop is in the throes of a high-rise boom. This was the most active market in downtown Chicago during the first six months of 2006, accounting for 40 percent of new condo and townhome sales, according to housing analyst Appraisal Research Counselors.

Housing sales figures for the third quarter of 2006 weren’t available at press time, but the neighborhood still commanded a substantial chunk of sales activity, according to Gail Lissner of Appraisal Research. In October 2006, New Homes counted more than 40 new high-rise, mid-rise and loft developments being marketed across the South Loop.
“It’s like a teenager, without the temper tantrums,” Lissner says.

Temper tantrums, no. But growing pains? Definitely. And that’s perhaps understandable given the frenzied pace of development in the South Loop, which is shaping up to be a sort of grand experiment in downtown urban living.

What do you do with a massive chunk of land located next to a stunning lake, world-class museums and the center of commerce that is the Loop? The possibilities are endless and mind-boggling.

Jogging along the South Loop lakefront

Do you leave it as an urbane little enclave of rustic lofts, interspersed with a few high-rises? Too late for that. Do you recreate Streeterville or River North? Do you go all-out and build a mini-Manhattan, with towering, Gotham-like high-rises and streets thick with people? Or do you create a neighborhood that’s somewhere in the middle –distinctly homegrown but like nothing Chicago has ever seen?

The latter option is most likely, but the form the South Loop ultimately will take is hazy as this work-in-progress remains some distance from being truly “grown up.”

Aiming high

Walking around the South Loop today reminds one of the years after the Great Chicago Fire. Perhaps not since then has the city seen the sort of concentrated and awesome (a word we don’t use lightly) construction underway. On some blocks, multiple cranes are visible in every direction. Others are cluttered with billboards, their giant arrows aiming homebuyers toward condo sales centers. This is a neighborhood dripping with sawdust and mortar.

Earlier bursts of South Loop development – both phases of Dearborn Park and the early building at Central Station – were mostly low-rise, with a mid-rise complex here or there. Today, there are no major new single-family or townhome developments under construction north of Cermak Road and only a handful of loft conversions.

The high-rises dominating this market range from the intimate 12-story condo project underway at 1819 S. Michigan Ave., where 94 units are priced from the $270s to the $380s, to the two-tower X/O development, designed by Lucien Lagrange. The 44-story north tower will contain about 275 condos, and the 34-story south tower will have 202 units. The two-acre site also includes 10 townhouses and a 10,000-square-foot public park.

Billboards touting new high-rise developments are everywhere in the South Loop

Most of the high-rises underway have roughly 200 to 300 units and range from about a dozen stories to more than 60, though most are less than 40 stories tall. The Enterprise Companies’ One Museum Park is the granddaddy of all South Loop high-rises both in terms of height (65 stories) and price point (up to $2.6 million), but more on that later. Prices for new construction here tend to range from the low $200s to the $500s.

South Loop prices have grown, but affordable developer units are still available. Printers Square, for instance, a loft conversion at 700 S. Federal St., in Printers Row, has studios starting in the mid-$100s. Both Aristocrat Tower, a 146-unit high-rise at 2028 S. Prairie Ave., and Motor Row Condominiums, 2300 S. Michigan Ave., have some units priced under $200,000.

Motor Row, it should be observed, is south of Cermak and part of a growing trend as residential development pushes southward in this booming neighborhood, straining the borders of the South Loop.

Laid-back area?

The paradox of the neighborhood is that while residents for years have lamented a perceived lack of services, stores and amenities, some now complain about the density of the residential development that’s bringing restaurants and retail to the South Loop. Homeowners in the neighborhood were thrilled when Jewel-Osco, Dominick’s, Starbucks and Target showed up, but those retailers would not be on deck if not for the residential construction boom and rapidly growing population.

Enjoying a game of soccer in Grant Park

Long-time residents, however, even those who welcome new stores, aren’t always comfortable with the pace and shape of recent home building. One of the things that bought the early urban pioneers to the neighborhood, other than comparatively cheap digs, was its sense of space and feeling of solitude (vast tracts of undeveloped land, the expanse of Lake Michigan, large parks) in an area that’s conveniently located near Loop offices and Near North nightlife.

Some want to keep it that way – after all, it’s nice to be able to get a parking spot when you need it.

Leah Rubin who, along with her husband, Ryan Mayers, is watching her dog, Ari, romp in the South Loop’s new dog park, says that what she likes best about the South Loop is its laid-back vibe.

Rubin, a psychology student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and her husband, a freelance film editor, live in a Printers Row loft and love the fact that they can always find a seat at their local bar, Hackney’s Printers Row, 733 S. Dearborn St.

“The Gold Coast is more in your face,” Rubin says. Mayers adds, “You don’t have to be on top of your game [in the South Loop]; you can walk out with sweatpants on.”

It’s easy to see what they mean. On a brisk Sunday in fall, the South Loop is a bit of a ghost town, though there are signs (endless cranes, development billboards and rows of scaffolding) it will be busy come Monday morning. The South Loop is alive with the sounds of construction during the week, but at the weekend, the long blocks south of Roosevelt Road are quiet as a suburban subdivision.   

Solitude has its merits, but for some, hanging out in the South Loop feels like showing up at a party only to realize you have the wrong address.

Teenager Eliot Popko says he hangs out in Hyde Park to escape the quiet of his Prairie Avenue District home.

Student Michael E. Wilson plays the drums at the Myron Hokin Student Center at Columbia College, 623 S. Wabash Ave.

“There isn’t a lot to do here; it’s kind of like the suburbs in the city,” he says. “I don’t want the neighborhood to turn into a completely residential area.”

But like it or not, the residences keep coming. In the South Loop, the market is dictating the pace of high-rise development, and so far that pace is full speed ahead.

Development boom

The scale of high-rise development has ruffled a few – apparently very few – feathers in the Printers Row neighborhood. Residents of the enclave’s converted loft buildings will soon see several high-rises break ground on surface parking lots and underutilized industrial sites.

A handful of residents in the Folio Square building, whose views will be affected by Terrapin Properties’ high-rise development, Burnham Pointe, launched a Web site called “Polk Street Canyon” to protest the project. Others welcome the population – and attendant commercial development – such projects will bring.

“I would like to see the population density increase to the level of River North, but on a slightly smaller scale, a blend of 20- to 30-story buildings mixed in with the lofts which are presently there.” Devyn Caldwell, a blogger and Burnham Pointe buyer, wrote at YoChicago.com, a Web site affiliated with New Homes, “I can only hope for a pedestrian-oriented community with … an emphasis on urban living.”

Printers Row, however, has little room for building and with a good selection of street-level retail, is one of the most settled and comfortable corners of the South Loop. Most of the high-rise development is taking place south of Printers Row, on tracts of open land so large developers are able to mini-communities of 1,000 or more residential units and lure big-box retailers, restaurants and cinemas to complement the new homes.

Construction at Museum Park.

Mega projects

Large-scale developments like Centrum Properties’ Roosevelt Collection and Prairie Station, which is being developed by a group that includes Chicago developer Bill Warman, are pushing South Loop development to a new level, one that means greater population density and a wider array of shops, restaurants and services.

Centrum is building 1,000 residential units and 420,000 square feet of commercial space, including restaurants, a health club and a 20-screen cinema on 14 acres bounded by Roosevelt Road, 9th Street, Wells Street and the Metra tracks.

At press time, sales were slated to open in November at The Lofts at Roosevelt Collection, a 350-unit new-construction development with homes priced from the high-$200s to the mid-$500s, according to Jennifer Arons, Centrum’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. At press time, first occupancy was scheduled for fall 2008, Arons said. Centrum also is developing two high-rises. Details on these projects have not been released, but Arons said first delivery was expected in fall 2009. Most of the retailers in the mixed-use development will open shop in summer 2008, she said.

“This neighborhood is just starting to mature; it’s really just hitting its stride,” Arons says. “It will be very a la Michigan Avenue; a lot of boutiques from the middle to the high end.”

Buttressing the Roosevelt Collection is JPS Interests’ Southgate Market, slated to open in November 2006 at Roosevelt Road and Canal Street. Confirmed tenants include Cost Plus World Market, Designer Shoe Warehouse, Linens’n’Things and Office Depot. South Loopers were dismayed when news broke in fall 2006 that upscale grocer Whole Foods had pushed back the expected February 2007 opening of its 55,000-square-foot store until May, but on the upside, the neighborhood that not long ago lacked a grocery store will soon have several major ones from which to choose.

Penguins play at Shedd Aquarium.

Directly south of Centrum’s development, all eyes are another mixed-use community that shows enormous promise but has had several false starts. The 62 acres of vacant land that stretch south of Roosevelt Road to 16th Street, between Clark Street and the river, were packaged as the Riverside District by Rezmar Development Group. Rezmar planned to build up to 4,700 residential units, new roads, retail, parking, plazas and serious infrastructure on the site with the help of tax-increment financing from the city.

But in 2005, Rezmar sold the site to General Mediterranean, a European conglomerate. At press time, real estate investment banker Eastdil Secured, LLC confirmed that it had been retained to sell at least part of the property, leaving its future up in the air. There’s no question that this prime parcel will be developed, but the delays have been frustrating for some neighborhood observers.

Prairie home

Southeast of the Riverside District and Roosevelt Collection sites, the $500 million mixed-use Prairie Station development, along the 2000 block of South Prairie Avenue, is set to transform the southeast corner of the neighborhood with new high-rises and retail.  The sparse area is home to a smattering of mansions, leftovers from the days when this was Chicago’s Gold Coast, as well as newer low-rise developments.

Father-of-two, John Jacoby, says the Prairie Avenue District has built up a family-friendly atmosphere in a few short years, and neighbors are watching the new development a little nervously.

Dogs Pico and Prada go for a walk in Grant Park.

Four years ago there were so few families in the area that Jacoby’s wife, Diane, began taking the couple’s two daughters trick-or-treating in Central Station, the large community of townhouses and high-rises to the north. The trick-or-treaters used to call on Central Station’s most famous resident, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Jacoby says.

“My youngest was dressed up as a skunk one year, and Maggie [Daley] invited her in and made sure the Mayor saw her,” Jacoby says. But by 2005, the number of children in the immediate neighborhood had grown so dramatically that Jacoby doled out candy bars on Halloween to about 100 local kids dressed as goblins, ghosts and Disney characters.

Soon there will be even more doors to knock on. Prairie Station will contain 2,000 high-rise and townhome units, retail, movie theaters, restaurants and a health club. The site includes the 119-unit Chess Lofts, a conversion of the old Chess Records recording studio at 320 E. 21st St., where blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf laid down tracks. These units are priced from the $200s and slated for delivery in June 2007. Prairie Station also includes the art deco-styled high-rise Aristocrat Tower, scheduled for delivery in 2008. At press time, Aristocrat’s 146 units were priced from the $190s to just under $1 million.

Directly north of Prairie Station, Kargil Development Partners is building the modern X/O Condominiums, 1712 S. Prairie Ave., two bold, glassy high-rises flanked by 10 contemporary townhomes.

The South Loop skyline reflected in a puddle in Grant Park

Residents are divided over architect Lucien Lagrange’s daring design, which he likens to a couple dancing a sexy tango. Some say that the project, located across from the historic Glessner House Museum, is out of keeping with the historic streetscape, and worry about the strain of increased density.

Lagrange says his modern design is the right accompaniment to the Romanesque-Revival design of architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s famous building. “Glessner House is a landmark now, but at the time it was built it was a very avant-garde building. It was breaking new ground, and in a way, we’re doing the same thing,” the architect says.
John Jacoby doesn’t mind Lagrange’s tower, but says he finds the townhomes “institutional” and at odds with their surroundings.

“We see a corresponding increase in traffic with new high-rises,” Jacoby says. “Of course, that’s what draws developers in with retail and all those niceties. You hope that the planning agencies get you to the right balance of development versus being too dense. I think over time we will become too dense.”

Spotlight on Michigan Avenue

Much like Prairie Avenue, Michigan Avenue is primping itself for its moment in the spotlight. The city plans to beautify several of the famous street’s less famous blocks, south of Roosevelt Road, repairing sidewalks and adding planters and lights. At press time, developers were marketing six high-rises along the stretch of South Michigan Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Cullerton Street.

“I want growth and lots of it, but what really needs to happen is more small business growth, not just giant, looming condo towers,” Jeff, a South Looper and blogger, writes at YoChicago.com. “There’s towers going up, and nothing much else.”

The Enterprise Companies currently is the force behind many of those towers. The developer to date has sold out seven condo high-rises at the 28-acre Museum Park, a large chunk of the Central Station community. Enterprise was not the first builder to construct high-rises in the South Loop, but it has enjoyed the most momentum (buyers have been known to camp out at 4:30 a.m. on the days new ones open), and it has given other developers the confidence to follow suit.

Who’s buying in these new South Loop towers?

“We pick up a number of empty nesters, mostly suburban,” says veteran Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent Ralph Oliva, who heads sales at Museum Park. “We get Asian buyers because of the proximity to Chinatown…and a number of Indian buyers.”

Bartender Silvio Martinez mixes a drink at Cuatro, a new Latin-American restaurant at 2030 S. Wabash Ave.

At press time, Enterprise was marketing another seven high-rises (two nearly sold out at press time), including the ultra-luxury two-tower development One Museum Park, where at press time, condos with panoramic views of Soldier Field, the lake and Grant Park ranged from lows in the $440s (west tower) to a high of $2.6 million (east tower).

Enterprise is planning to build up to three more towers, bringing the total number of high-rise condos at Museum Park to about 3,500, says director of marketing, Karen Juneau.

Future growth

But just how many new homes can – or should – the neighborhood absorb?
“I think there is still tremendous growth potential and demand in the South Loop,” says Gail Lissner, of Appraisal Research.

If price appreciation is any indication, it seems that demand has, at least up to now, been strong in the South Loop.

The average sales price of a condo or townhome in the South Loop was $391,578 in the period between Jan. 1 and August 20, 2006, up 20 percent from the same period in 2004, according to statistics compiled from the Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois by Rubloff Residential Properties sales associates, Tim Duquette and Christine Hancock.

Watching the sharks at Shedd Aquarium

However, in late 2006, the Chicago real estate market was cooling slightly overall, and the effects were being felt in the South Loop. The volume of condo and townhome sales was 1,121 between Jan. 1 and August 20, 2006, a drop of 11 percent from the same period in 2004, according to the MLS statistics compiled by Rubloff. 

During the first quarter of 2006, the South Loop dominated downtown sub-markets, according to Appraisal Research, with 44 percent of all new-construction sales downtown occurring in the South Loop. During the second quarter, the South Loop had 24 percent of the pie. That was a significant drop in share, but still more than the 16 percent to 18 percent of sales garnered by the Near North, West Loop, River North and Loop / New East Side.

“The market is tough for sure,” says Lissner. “However, overall, the total sales that are occurring in the market still far exceed the historical averages which we have seen over the last 10 years.”

And that building, predicated on copious available land perched on the edge of downtown Chicago, has room to continue well into the future.

“There is about a decade of development left in terms of land,” says developer Keith Giles. “It will never be Rush Street; the South Loop will always be a high-rise bedroom community.”

In the long term, the potential for continued development should be a plus for today’s, and yesterday’s, condo buyers, but more important, in the view of Eliot Popko, the Prairie Avenue teen, continued growth will make the South Loop a more comfortable neighborhood with a more solid identity.

“Developmentally, it’s like a teenager. It’s undecided as to what its future going to be. Is it going to turn into the North Side? Who knows? It needs banks, bakeries, just places you can walk to, that make it more of a community than just a place where you live.”

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