Opening a 56-story Chicago office building during COVID-19

The new Bank of America office building, 816 feet tall and 56-stories along the Chicago River, is ready for business. But, COVID-19 is around…

From film at https://110northwacker.com/

The lead tenant, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, expected to have more than 2,600 people working on its 17 floors of the 56-story tower. But fewer than 200 work there now, according to company spokeswoman Diane Wagner…

By drastically reducing the number of columns that come to the ground, this structural tour de force allows the tower’s caissons to reach bedrock without hitting the remaining caissons of the old Morton Salt building. It also opens up the riverwalk, which would have felt constricted had it been hidden behind a row of columns.

To some, the arrangement may appear unstable. But new section of riverwalk, with its long, curving benches and still-to-be-planted greenery, is among the strongest contributions the tower makes to the public realm. It will not become a windblown cavern, the architects assure…

With COVID-19 still a significant threat, the developers have put several safeguards in place, including walk-through temperature scanning in the lobby, antimicrobial cladding on the building’s entry doors and upgraded air filtration systems. Tenants can swipe their smartphones on high-tech turnstiles that call an elevator. There’s also none of the welcoming seating that animated other downtown office building lobbies before the pandemic struck.

It sounds like the pandemic has effects on two major features of the building:

  1. The interior will not be functioning as it was designed for a while. This building has a lot of office space; will it ever be fully filled after COVID-19 passes and businesses reckon with shifts to working from home? We have not heard much about what it is like to work in such conditions – a relatively empty building – nor do we know how building owners and developers plan to use office space if they cannot attract firms.
  2. The excerpt above describes how the building interacts with the surrounding environment. It sounds good. But, how does it look and/or function when the typical street life of the Loop is not present? Can aesthetics overcome a lack of social interaction? When will the building fully participate in regular urban life?

Since this is not the only large downtown building under construction in Chicago, let alone in large American cities, it will be fascinating to see what comes of these structures. Will they be regarded as the last of the big central office buildings in a decentralized work landscape or will they be brave attempts to do business as normal or do they represent a new wave of exciting buildings that mark a post COVID-19 era?

Quick Review: High-Risers

I recently finished Ben Austen’s High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing.

As I have studied some of what Austen details, I want to highlight main themes from the book:

  1. The way that Austen recounts the history of Cabrini-Green helps highlight the community, social life, and humanity present at Cabrini-Green. He does this through tracing the lives of several residents and their families throughout the larger narrative about Cabrini-Green and public housing. Cabrini-Green became a symbol or abstraction for many Chicago area resident and for the country but these stories help humanize the place and those who lived there.
  2. Public housing in the United States never had much of a chance. It was difficult to get implemented in the first place, decisions about design, locations, and maintenance were not always made with the best interests of the residents in mind, and the number of public housing units has declined in recent decades with former residents pushed out and a switch to voucher options. If this is the front line to a fight over a right to housing, it is hard to find much hope that the right will be established any time soon.
  3. The Chicago Housing Authority did poorly including locating public housing units in already segregated areas, failing to maintain buildings, and not following through on the Plan for Transformation, For a government agency that was supposed to help people, its legacy is not a good one, even by Chicago standards.
  4. Pairing this book with the 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth would provide a good education on the topic of public housingfor the general public. Both have a compelling storyline/presentation based on particular housing projects and enough connections to scholarly conversations on the topics involved for people to dig deeper.

The start of municipal budget issues due to COVID-19? The case of Chicago

COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of life in the United States and it will have consequences for municipal budgets. Here is how Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot describes the fiscal impact:

Google Street View of Chicago City Hall, June 2018

Citing the “catastrophic collapse of our local and national economy” because of COVID-19 and damage to local businesses from civil unrest, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday laid out a $1.2 billion shortfall for what she called Chicago’s “pandemic budget” in 2021…

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has also spiked the 2020 budget shortfall to nearly $800 million, Lightfoot said. She said that deficit would be filled using relief funds and other unspecified aid from the federal government, in addition to debt refinancing, and borrowing…

In laying out the 2021 shortfall, Lightfoot cited dire numbers — more than 900,000 Chicago-area residents filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic, while personal services, hospitality and tourism industries “are still seeing a fraction of their typical revenues and some businesses have sadly closed with no hope of coming back.”…

The bad news has seemed inevitable for months, as tax receipts plummeted with large parts of the economy shut down and spending in Chicago by tourists and conventioneers cratered throughout the summer because of the pandemic.

Chicago has its own particular challenges but the COVID-19 shortfall is one that many communities in the United States, big and small, will experience. Local governments tend to want to diversify their tax base so that they are drawing tax revenues from multiple sources. COVID-19 interrupts or limits a number of these streams: money from visitors (who stay in hotels, visit sites, eat), sales tax revenues (derived from businesses from residents and visitors, who are affected by employment and travel opportunities), and property tax revenue (could be affected if people are moving in or out affecting demand plus whether residents and landlords are able to pay their bills). Furthermore, right now this is posed as an issue for the current budget; what is the effect for months or years down the road as cities and communities try to rebound and/or continue to battle COVID-19?

Closing these COVID-19 shortfalls will provide unique opportunities for politicians. This article suggests all options are on the table; yet, I am sure most, if not all of the politicians involved, have particular budget options they would not consider. Many municipal governments will hope there are extra resources available from above, perhaps from the county, state, and federal governments. Yet, all levels of government are likely to feel the impact of COVID-19. And with the current discord between the White House and big city leaders, it is hard to imagine what a palatable plan for the federal government and municipal governments to work together would look like. Could this/should this be a major issue on the November 2020 campaign trail as multiple levels of government look to address COVID effects?

Collect better data on whether Chicagoans are leaving the city

Even as there are claims 500,000 New Yorkers have left the city, a new article suggests “some” Chicago residents are leaving. The evidence:

Incidents of widespread looting and soaring homicide figures in Chicago have made national news during an already tumultuous year. As a result, some say residents in affluent neighborhoods downtown, and on the North Side, no longer feel safe in the city’s epicenter and are looking to move away. Aldermen say they see their constituents leaving the city, and it’s a concern echoed by some real estate agents and the head of a sizable property management firm.

It’s still too soon to get an accurate measure of an actual shift in population, and such a change could be driven by a number of factors — from restless residents looking for more spacious homes in the suburbs due to COVID-19, to remote work allowing more employees to live anywhere they please…

The day after looting broke out two weeks ago, a Tribune columnist strolled through Gold Coast and Streeterville. Residents of the swanky Near North Side told him they’d be moving “as soon as we can get out.” Others expressed fear of returning downtown in the future.

Rafael Murillo, a licensed real estate broker at Compass whose primary market is downtown high-rises, said he has seen a trend of city dwellers looking to move to the suburbs sooner than initially planned, due in part to the recent unrest in the city.

Three pieces of data I see i this story: aldermen reporting on actions in their districts; journalists talking to some people; and comments from people in the real estate industry. This is not that different than what is being said in New York City (plus information from moving companies).

The caveat that leads the second paragraph above – we do not have an accurate measure yet – may be correct but then it is difficult to square with the rest of the story that suggests “some” people are leaving. What we want to know is the size of this trend. Is this a trickle of people in a city that has been losing people or a recent flood? And if the numbers are larger, what exactly are the motivations of people for leaving (being pushed over the edge, fear, housing values, etc.)?

Someone could find some more certain data. Work with the local utilities to look at usage (or nonusage in units)? Traffic counts? Post office address changes? Triangulate with more data sources? If this is indeed a trend, it is an important one to highlight, explain, and discuss. But, without better data, it is hard to know what to make of it.

A new master plan for Chicago builds on (odd) legacies of older plans

With the announcement yesterday that Chicago will embark on a new planning process for the local government to consider, one news report included this tidbit about previous planning processes:

When finished, the document would be submitted to the plan commission and the City Council for approval. Gorski said the last such citywide plan in 1966 had official status but never got formal approval.

And from the official Chicago press release:

“While Chicago may have pioneered citywide planning with the 1909 ‘Plan of Chicago,’ this is a rare opportunity to collectively address current and future issues with a collaborative and coordinated effort with other planning entities, businesses, institutions and the people of Chicago,” DPD Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Dickhut said.

This history would be worth exploring more. Here are a few questions/issues/thoughts which I am sure someone has answered and/or explored:

  1. Why was the 1966 plan not formally approved?
  2. The gap between 1966 and today seems like a long time to not have a different master plan. Chicago has changed a lot since then. Is it safe to assume there have been a lot of smaller (district, community areas, etc.) plans developed and acted upon since 1966?
  3. The reference to the 1909 Burnham Plan is interesting in that it had limited influence on subsequent changes in Chicago or the region. It remains an influential plan yet may not be the best advertisement for a plan that led to lasting change.
  4. While the Burnham Plan is often held up as a visionary example, other Chicago planning visions or decisions may not hold up as well. For example, doing research on Cabrini-Green, I became acquainted with the story of how public housing projects came to be located where they were. Or, think of the placement of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
  5. Even if the new plan is not completed on time or is not approved or enacted, it can be a valuable process to engage numerous stakeholders from around the city to think about and discuss what they want the city to be about.
  6. Balancing the larger vision with the important minutiae to decided at the local scale will be interesting to watch. Either job would be difficult on its own.

Reminder of Chicago’s vital position in the American railway network

I recently saw a map on Reddit that displayed four maps of railway networks: Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia.RailwayNetworksJul2320

There is a lot that could be said with these maps. When I looked at the North America map, one thing jumped out at me: the centrality of Chicago to the passenger network (and to railroads more broadly). Not surprisingly, given the density of population and major population centers, there are more passenger trains between Washington, D.C. and Boston. The rest of the country is relatively sparse except for the convergence of lines in and out of Chicago. This is partly the result of geography – Chicago’s position at the base of the Great Lakes helps – but also the result of decisions to route traffic and develop infrastructure in and around Chicago and not elsewhere (like in St. Louis or Memphis or Cincinnati or other options). And a lot of rail traffic and freight runs through the region as well.

If a more robust passenger rail system develops in the United States, this map suggests Chicago will be in the thick of it. This would present an opportunity for a city that is already a transportation center with busy airports, crowded roads, and potentially more rail traffic and visitors. It is a little surprising that Chicago and Illinois leaders do not talk more about potential railroad options – consider the decades-long focus on a potential third airport, plans for highways that do not get off the ground, or the slow speed at which railroad congestion is addressed – as this could only add to what Chicago already has.

Addressing more Chicago traffic when fewer people take mass transit

With COVID-19, few may be willing to ride mass transit even as everyday life slowly returns to some normalcy. This has consequences for traffic:

man standing beside train

Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

World Business Chicago, a public-private nonprofit agency that promotes the city, estimates that on a given workday there about 406,000 office workers in downtown Chicago, making it the country’s second-biggest central business district after Manhattan.

Many of those people arrive by trains and buses, with the CTA and Metra providing almost 1.9 million rides combined on an average, pre-coronavirus weekday. That includes 1.6 million total one-way CTA rides and 263,000 Metra trips…

Riders’ hesitation may come in part from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation in May that people drive to work alone. That guidance rankled public transportation advocates and created concerns of major traffic and environmental impacts in densely populated cities…

“We’re hearing stories from New York and (Washington) D.C. about employers saying if you’ve taken public transportation you can’t come in the building,” Lavin said. “We want to be sure there’s nothing against public transportation here. In order to do that, we need to have a dialogue.”

Chicago has heavy traffic even with mass transit use because it is a transportation center with plenty of highways and intermodal facilities.

As noted in an earlier blog post, this does present an opportunity to reduce traffic long-term or make a choice to continue to rely on a sprawling landscape full of drivers in their own private vehicles. There are multiple options to pursue:

1. More people working from home. This would reduce traffic on major roads.

2. Stagger work times more so that “rush hour” is more spread out.

3. Find ways to make sure mass transit is safe and/or people feel confident riding it. This might require more resources or better PR or new ideas.

4. Pushing for more people to be able to work closer to their workplaces (meaning more housing options throughout a metropolitan region).

5. Pushing for denser areas in the city or suburbs. (This might be a hard sell right at the moment due to concerns about COVID-19.)

6. Providing more incentives for fleets of vehicles (electric or otherwise) so that not every household has so many cars.

Any one of these or several of them could be pursued at multiple levels with actions from individuals, local groups and municipalities, states, regions, and the federal government.

Bringing the Texas U-turn to Chicago

An innovation is coming to a particularly difficult Chicago road construction site: a Texas U-turn will be in place for drivers hoping to get on the northbound Kennedy from the eastbound Eisenhower.

Google Maps image of Meachem Road and Illinois Route 390

Kennedy-bound traffic will be detoured onto the far-right Eisenhower lane and steered to the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway. From there, motorists will take a “Texas U-turn” at the Taylor Street interchange and go from there to the westbound Kennedy…

“The detour will be a dedicated lane separated by a barrier wall to restrict merging into the regular Dan Ryan lanes and requiring drivers to use the Taylor Street interchange,” IDOT engineers said.

What’s a Texas U-turn? It “refers to a roadway that allows vehicles to make a 180-degree maneuver to go in the opposite direction, usually without traffic signals,” IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said. “They were first widely used in Texas on one-way frontage roads that paralleled expressways.

“The free flow U-turn improves traffic flow and reduces congestion in certain situations because it keeps the U-turning traffic out of the cross road intersections. An example of this is at the Meacham Road interchange on Route 390.”

According to Wikipedia, the Texas U-turn is present in a number of states.

Two additional thoughts:

1. A precondition for the Texas U-turn seems to be having frontage roads along highways. There are some areas in the Chicago region where this is common – such as long the Dan Ryan Expressway – but many other areas where frontage roads are not present and properties back up to the highway. In Chicago, I wonder if the frontage roads are the result of fitting highways into the existing street grid (such as the Congress Street Expressway, later the Eisenhower).

2. It would be interesting to see how different road innovations spread across states. How do highway innovations diffuse across the United States? They may arise because of particular local conditions but then engineers and planners elsewhere see how they are applicable. At some point, there is federal intervention regarding safety and regulations. Having driven on highways across the United States, there is both familiarity with the system – similar signage, the roadways themselves look similar – as well as local peculiarities – exits on different sides, the size of on and off-ramps as well as the space between them, HOV lanes, etc.

Related post: the coming of the diamond interchange to the Chicago area.

When a billboard with a basketball player slowed down Chicago traffic

Along one of the most congested stretches of highway in the United States, a mural of NBA player Dennis Rodman led to even more traffic in early 1996:

In March 1996, men’s clothier Bigsby & Kruthers painted an image of Rodman on the side of a building just off the Kennedy Expressway. The 32-foot-high mural stared eastbound traffic in the eye, causing gapers delays in both directions that snarled traffic as badly as road construction.

An operations manager for a traffic-data company said the larger-than-life image added 20 to 30 minutes to morning commutes on the Kennedy and the Edens Expressway. And that was before Rodman’s hair was even on it.

“The 75-foot-wide advertisement included a color image of Michael Jordan looking down on traffic,” a March 26, 1996, Tribune story read. “But it’s the oversize Rodman who has taken the rush out of rush hour. His power glower is punctuated with three earrings and a nose ring; his arms are crossed, and his natty suit has the sleeves ripped out to reveal his collection of tattoos. He is even leaning forward, as if he just might want to butt heads.”

Standing just before the North Avenue exit, the painting was wider and taller than billboard laws normally would have allowed. But because the building was being used as a Bigsby & Kruthers warehouse, the advertising was not limited in size.

While most of the mural was black and white, the hair was in color — and changed as Rodman’s dye did, only adding to the traffic headaches.

Alas, the mural didn’t last. Bigsby & Kruthers covered it up a little more than two weeks after it first appeared in response to the concern of traffic officials.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. Cities have regular spots that come up on traffic reports and the Kennedy is typically on the list in Chicago (“from O’Hare to downtown”). These spots can be on the list for a variety of reasons: a chokepoint for traffic, an odd curve or different road design (such as narrowing of lanes), and/or regular accidents. Billboards probably are not common contributors to this.
  2. At the same time, certain billboards or advertisements can be become part of the urban highway experience. As commuters travel regular routes, they get used to seeing particular signs. New signs can also garner attention if they are a significant change or unusual. The other sports one that comes to mind from the Chicago region involved a series of Brian Urlacher balding treatment billboards along I-294 that popped up several years ago. I’m not sure if it caused any delays but it certainly caught people’s eyes as one of the city’s most recognizable recent sports stars suddenly had hair.
  3. The particular Rodman billboard came as part of a perfect storm. Take a regularly congested stretch of highway plus an incredible basketball team that set the record that year for most wins in a season plus a truly unique player on the billboard (and not one who fit the typical Chicago image). The billboard did not last long but it left a mark.

The geographical improbability of Ferris Bueller and a limited view of Chicago

Ferris Bueller and friends see a lot of the Chicago region in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but their journey is improbable:

Chicago is a big city. Like, really, really big. The makers obviously looked at what they wanted Ferris to do and decided to leave geographic and timeline reality in the dust as Ferris and friends drove away in a red Ferrari GT California Spyder.

Case in point: Ferris begins his day on the far upper side of Chicago, in one of those fancy North Shore neighborhoods past Northwestern University. He convinces friend Cameron—who lives in a different fancy neighborhood—to borrow his dad’s Ferrari, pull the subterfuge with his girlfriend at the school and then drive into the city. The clock is already ticking!

But then! A longish discussion with the parking garage attendants. Sightseeing at the then-Sears Tower. Lunch (impersonating Sausage King Abe Froman). More sightseeing at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A Cubs game! (Games typically last 3 hours, by the way.) Then more sightseeing back downtown at the Art Institute, followed by an epic parade crash. By this time, it must be nearly midnight! But no, it’s back up to the northern suburbs (presumably during rush hour) followed by an emotional discussion about life and love with friends, a ridiculously long footrace home and… Ferris is back in his bed by the time the folks walk in. By our math, those shenanigans would’ve taken roughly, oh, two days! Or at least 26 hours.

This would not be the first time a movie took liberties with geography (see another Chicago example here). It is easy to think why a film would do this: they want to have characters move in places that are well known, they do not necessarily have to adhere to rules of space and time, and the point of this film is about teenagers having a crazy day in and around the big city.

At the same time, films (and TV shows that follow similar logics) present a distorted view of cities. I could see this working out in two ways in Ferris Bueller. First, they visit the most well-known sites of the city. These can be fun locations, full of people, recognizable around the world. Ferris and friends have fun there. But, this reinforces only certain parts of Chicago and the surrounding region, missing out on a lot of other interesting sites. Second, their visits are quick in and out trips. They drop in, see the most important parts, and leave. In other words, not only do they primarily visit tourist sites, they are the ultimate tourists: they consume and move on and then return to mundane daily life.

These issues are on top of the time and space concerns of the film. Perhaps most viewers do not care about any of these; Chicago looks like a fun place in a time when the city (and other big cities) faced major issues. But, if viewers see enough films and TV shows that do this, they take in a limited perspective of cities and urban life.