Apple: new Chicago store will “transform the riverfront”

The claim that Apple stores can serve as town squares is questionable and another claim about the new Apple store on the Chicago River might be as well:

During the keynote address, Apple’s Angela Ahrendts claimed that the new store will “transform the riverfront.” And in typical Apple fashion, the new store combines form and function to deliver perhaps the most transformative retail offerings in years. Similar to designs for other Apple flagship retail stores, the new Michigan Avenue store boasts a glassy, transparent box shape. However, it is capped with a curved roofline that resembles the lid of its Macbook laptop computer.

The new store has taken over a large portion of Pioneer Court, an outdoor office plaza which had previously served as the location for large-scale art installations. Construction on the new store officially kicked off last March, and after a year, the store began to take shape as workers installed the store’s large glass walls.

Apple is known for its focus on design, and its big move and new location is notable for not just being on the river, but for adding more to Michigan Avenue south of the Magnificent Mile. Once a quiet stretch, the length of Michigan Avenue between the Mag Mile and Millennium Park has gained significant momentum with the delivery of a new apartment tower, a new hotel, and the planned overhaul of the Tribune Tower and its surrounding properties.

This one store has been talked about for months and certainly has a striking design. Yet, can it truly “transform the riverfront”? That remains to be seen. Part of the issue could be exactly how transformation is defined. Is it simply operating an iconic building? Does it involve attracting a lot of people? If it does bring in a lot of people, what if those people primarily stay inside the Apple store rather than lingering on the riverfront and frequenting other spaces and businesses? Is it bringing in big money (sales as well as tax revenues)? Is is transferring the high status of Apple to a development project – the Riverfront – that could use some status?

Let’s see what happens. My guess that this will be an iconic store for Apple but the Chicago Riverfront is going to need much more than this to truly be a destination in its own right.

I disagree: Loop building boom a sign of “the re-urbanization of America”

An insightful analysis of the high-rise construction boom in Chicago’s Loop includes this claim about what all this new development means:

“It’s the re-urbanization of America,” said John Lahey, chairman of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in residential high-rises.

It’s also a shift in the urban map: The once-frayed edges of downtown, home to the poor and working-class, are now the glittering home of the affluent. Rental rates, while less expensive than on the coasts, still leave many priced out. City officials last month proposed a pilot program to generate affordable housing in gentrifying areas of the Near North and Near West sides as well as along Milwaukee Avenue. But changing the trajectory of the marketplace won’t be easy.

This is an interesting claim to make in Chicago. The “Super Loop” is indeed growing in population and tall buildings. But, the city as a whole is not doing so well. See the population loss. See the persistent problems – meaning, decades-long concerns – in numerous poor neighborhoods. See the slow population growth in the suburbs within the metropolitan region and also the emerging presence of urban issues (affordable housing, poverty, exclusion) in suburban areas.

A better description might be this: what is happening is the concentration of wealth in urban cores while outlying areas of cities and suburbs are suffering. The same process is happening in New York City, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, and other major cities.

Wrong direction on Lake Shore Drive in “When Harry Met Sally”

I noticed this again recently: the movie When Harry Met Sally gets an important feature of Chicago wrong early on. As described by IMDB:

When Harry and Sally drive from the University of Chicago to New York, they should drive on the Lake Shore Drive heading to the south (to the direction of Gary), not to the north (to the direction of downtown). So they should not be on the Lake Shore drive on the north of downtown.

It is not clear how this mistake was made but it could be an easy one to make for multiple reasons:

  1. The University of Chicago is an island onto itself on the south side of Chicago. It takes several miles and multiple social worlds to get to the better known, wealthier, whiter part of Chicago (the Loop and North Side). Perhaps this is commentary about where University of Chicago students end up?
  2. Would the view along the southern portion of Lake Shore Drive be recognizable to many people? The views of Chicago are very different at these different ends. The southern approach to the city provides a more industrial, working-class view while the north side emphasizes high-rises and waterfront amenities.
  3. Perhaps this could further fuel Chicago’s sense of inferiority compared to New York City: “they don’t even know the north and south sides of our great city!”

Why doesn’t everyone leave Chicago or Illinois?

With the recent news of Chicago’s continuing population decline as well as population loss in some suburbs, some critics have suggested this all makes sense with the problems facing Chicago and the state of Illinois. The argument goes like this: when social, economic, and political conditions are bad, people vote with their feet and leave. Look at all the people moving to Texas and the Sun Belt!

However, there are multiple reasons people stay in Chicago and Illinois. Among them:

  1. It is costly financially to move. It takes time and money to move to a new location. Having a good job on the other hand is needed.
  2. It is costly socially to move. Finding new friends and social connections can be difficult, particularly in today’s society where Americans tend to stick to themselves.
  3. They have a good job in Illinois or Chicago. There are still plenty of good jobs here; Chicago is the #7 global city after all and there are lots of headquarters, major offices, and research facilities alongside large service and retail sectors.
  4. They have families or ties to the area. The Chicago region is the third biggest in the country – over 9 million residents – and there are lots of residents with long histories and/or many connections.
  5. Both places have a lot of amenities. One of the busiest airports in the world? Impressive skyline? Access to Lake Michigan? Good farmland? Located in the center geographically and socially in the United States? Land of Lincoln?

All that said, for the vast majority of Chicago and Illinois resident, there are not enough negatives outweighing the positives of staying. (This is not the same as saying current residents are happy or wouldn’t prefer to live somewhere else.) Compared to other American locations which are growing more quickly, it doesn’t look good but Chicago and Illinois also aren’t emptying out like American major cities did in the postwar era or some rural areas.

More important than actual figures: Chicago’s population loss compared to others

Last year, I argued Chicago’s slight population loss was just an estimate. This year, it might be worthwhile to focus less on how many people Chicago actually lost – 8,638 – and instead discuss why it is the only major city that lost population:

Chicago was the only city among the nation’s 20 largest to lose population in 2016 — and it lost nearly double the number of residents as the year before, according to newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau…

While the major cities in those states continue to grow, they aren’t growing as rapidly as they have in recent years. Houston, which saw the second-largest increase among major cities in 2015, when it gained 40,817 residents, gained 18,666 residents in 2016…

Even New York didn’t see as much growth in 2016 as it had in previous years. It grew by 21,171 people, compared with 44,512 people in 2015 and 49,530 in 2014.

“The big city growth we saw at the beginning of the decade is not quite as evident in the last couple years,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution who analyzes census data.

Two trends are discussed here: (1) Chicago is slowly losing population – this has been happening since the early 2010s – and (2) big cities overall didn’t grow as much during this past year. Both are important to note, even if these are just year to year estimates. A third ongoing trend complicates the story even more: the majority of the fastest-growing cities were in the South and West and communities in those regions had higher rates of population growth. In this broader context, it isn’t that strange that Chicago is losing people given its history and location (Rust Belt city, numerous ongoing issues) plus ongoing broader population shifts to the Sun Belt plus a slowdown in urban growth across the country.

For those who care about these figures, the bigger issue is that this does appear to be a trend over this decade: Chicago is slowly losing residents. The article notes several reasons including a loss of black residents and a slowing of immigration from Mexico. Apparently, even with all those luxury buildings going up downtown, there are not enough white suburbanites or millennials moving in.

Why are 62 acres so close to Chicago’s Loop even available?

There has been a lot of talk about a new project on 62 acres on the Chicago River just south of the Loop. Before we get to what will go there, why was such a big piece of property empty near one of the major centers of the world?

The South Loop property was used as a rail yard, but has sat unused for decades.

The scraggly land was later owned by Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser for imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich who himself served a prison sentence after a fraud and money laundering conviction. The site was sold 10 years ago to Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding, a firm led by Iraqi-born and British-based businessman Nadhmi Auchi. He was convicted in a French corruption scandal in 2003.

Last May, Related completed a city-approved deal to take over as lead developer, with Auchi’s firm remaining a joint venture partner.

From the city’s perspective, Related’s involvement brought credibility to the long-idle site. Related Midwest is an affiliate of New York-based Related Cos., which is building 18 million square feet in the Hudson Yards mixed-used development in Manhattan.

One thing that is striking about Chicago and some other Rust Belt cities is the amount of available or empty property. In particular, Chicago’s South Side has a number of large parcels including this site along the Chicago River, land southwest of McCormick Place with some small developments here and there, land on the Robert Taylor Homes site with a few buildings here and there, and the former US Steel site (and subject to a number of proposals in recent years – see the latest here) plus numerous empty or vacant properties scattered throughout neighborhoods. Even while development booms in certain neighborhoods (and the city trumpets the work taking place in the Loop), others have significant chunks of empty land.

The why: these properties are often available in poorer or more industrial neighborhoods and the properties are often located in or close to areas with higher concentrations of black residents. In other words, these properties are not desirable, even at cheap prices (such as $1 properties in Chicago), and the desirability is connected to the status of the location and the status of places in the United States is closely related to race and class. This particular 62 acres is a great example of how uneven development works; those who want to build (leaders and developers/those in the real estate industry) usually do so in order to profit as much as possible. Now, this 62 acre site is more desirable (meaning profitable) because the South Loop has done well in recent years and there are other new developments nearby.

Call for Chicago to annex nearby suburbs

Amidst population loss and persistent social issues, could Chicago improve its situation by annexing suburbs?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago expanded aggressively, luring in the formerly independent entities of Lake View, Jefferson Park, Hyde Park and Pullman with the promise of city services such as sewers and electricity. But except for the addition of O’Hare, that movement ended in 1930. By the post-World War II era of suburbanization, Chicago was boxed in by established villages that marketed themselves as escapes from filthy, crowded city living.

By contrast, Houston has used annexation-friendly state laws to inflate itself to three times Chicago’s geographic size over the past 70 years.

“Houston and other Sun Belt cities are really different than Eastern cities, in that many of them have never been surrounded by municipalities,” says Kyle Shelton of Rice University‘s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Annexations were easier for them to pursue because they didn’t have anyone to fight.” As a result, seven of the nation’s 10 largest cities are in the Sun Belt. Toronto used a similar process to leap past Chicago in population, amalgamating with five neighboring suburbs. Miami, Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis have all merged with their surrounding counties…

But just because something makes sense financially doesn’t mean it’s easy to make happen. Politics and civic pride are two obstacles: In Illinois, annexation requires a referendum in both the annexing city and the targeted community. Village residents and trustees are reluctant to give up power and patronage. Consider the story of East Cleveland, a bankrupt Ohio suburb whose mayor was recalled after proposing annexation to Cleveland.

This may not make sense for those calling to contract cities (Detroit as one example) but annexation may make sense at a metropolitan level. David Rusk writes about this in Cities Without Suburbs: cities that are more “elastic” (have expanded through annexations since the early 1900s) have lower levels of inequality as cities have been able to capture many of the benefits of suburban life (wealthier residents, property tax monies, etc.). Cities that have been able to merge governments – whether through annexation or joining city and county governments (such as in Indianapolis) – have experienced benefits.

At the same time, this call for Chicago to annex suburbs doesn’t say much about how this would benefit the suburbs. Even as inner-ring suburbs have experienced many of the same problems facing big cities, would the residents and leaders want to join with the big city next door? I doubt it.