What suburbs want when they say they want a second downtown

After reading several recent stories about suburbs desiring or planning a second downtown, I wanted to summarize what exactly they mean by a “second downtown.” Here are a few of the patterns at work:

1. Downtown in this case tends to imply a sort of walkable, cozy, family-oriented place full of small businesses and eateries. There is an atmosphere invoked here that is the opposite of shopping malls surrounded by parking lots or mile after mile of strip malls. Still, since this is the second downtown and likely to be located some distance away from an original and/or historic downtown, this new downtown will not look like the old downtown.

2. This second downtown location is intended to be a center of commerce, and, perhaps more importantly, a second major center of revenue for the community. This goes beyond just property taxes as the suburb often desires sales tax revenue.

3. Simply creating a second downtown and all that implies is not easy. A typical formula is a sort of walkable outdoor shopping area where someone could park in one location and then walk among stores and other interesting places. A fuller vision might include mixed uses where new enterprises and new residences help create a kind of neighborhood synergy. A second downtown is often very intentionally planned though not easy to pull off.

4. The location of an intentional second downtown is less likely to be in the middle of a suburb – the suburb can often grow around an original downtown – and more likely to be located at the intersection of several major roads. This may be good for access and trying to divert heavy flows of traffic but it may not be conducive to promoting walkability and a more permeable membrane with nearby residential areas.

Perhaps the planned second downtown in a suburb can work but it is not an easy space to develop.

Just how many church-to-residences conversions are taking place?

If churches and other religious buildings present attractive opportunities for redevelopment in urban neighborhoods, how often does this happen?

I hope someone is tracking all of these switches from religious structures to residences. The impetus to collect this data could come from multiple sources. An organization might want to look at changes in a neighborhood or geographic area. An organization of developers or architects might see this as a business opportunity. A researcher could be interested in housing changes, particularly from an unusual source like unused religious buildings. Presumably, this kind of housing does not go for cheap and could exacerbate existing issues in urban areas. Communities themselves might want to know how many religious buildings are being converted. This could affect tax rolls – moving property from non-taxpaying religious groups to residents brings in more tax money – and nearby residents could be affected.

From what I can gather, these conversions are happening at a regular pace. Yet, it is hard to track the scale from the occasional article. My own research on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago area did not find many churches that became residences. Indeed, former churches could fill a range of uses: the most common was a religious buildings for another religious group but churches could also be reused as daycare facilities, community centers, and offices.

Based on this, I would guess there are not that many churches being turned into residences in terms of sheer numbers. At the same time, of the religious buildings that are sold, I would guess a good number are converted into residences when located in more desirable neighborhoods (though I am sure some buildings are also demolished to make way for new residential buildings).

Forces behind church-into-residences conversions

The conversion of religious buildings into residences continues in many American cities. This is the result of at least three larger forces:

  1. The decline of numerous religious groups which means religious buildings are no longer used for worship. This decline has been going on for decades in a number of denominations, freeing up numerous churches and other structures.
  2. The demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. While the converted residences are not often cheap, they are often in desirable neighborhoods and locations. The same reasons religious groups chose particular locations also can make them attractive for residents. (The flip side is that religious buildings in less desirable neighborhoods can languish.)
  3. The unique architectural features a religious building can provide including tall vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and brick and stone work. These features can be incorporated into new dwellings and provide very different options compared to new construction.

For example, a recent Chicago Tribune piece about a former church in Logan Square highlights these issues:

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety…

All nine apartments in the converted church are one of a kind and configured with either two or three bedrooms. Three apartments are on the main level of the church, and three apartments are on the garden level. Three more are stacked within the former attached rectory behind the church. The first residents arrived in April…

“People can say it’s a really cool building, but if it doesn’t have closet space or if it doesn’t have a washer and dryer or room for their couch, it’s not going to work for them,” he said.

A recently closed church and sold building plus a desirable neighborhood plus interesting building details equals a redevelopment opportunity.

But, just how many of these conversions of religious buildings are taking place? This is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Strategies for renovating old downtown office buildings to compete with new towers

Pressure on office and residential space in Chicago’s Loop is coming from multiple angles, including the need for older buildings to adapt to modern office requirements:

Kamin said he expects more office buildings to find a second life as hotels or residential towers. “I don’t think there’s a successful path for some of these functionally obsolete buildings as offices,” Kamin said…

The high cost just to acquire a property presents relatively few opportunities for major overhauls, said developer Craig Golden of Blue Star Properties…

The venture took out a nearly $100 million construction loan in 2016, and converted the 20-story building into modern offices, branded as The National — a reference to the property’s 1907 opening as the home of Commercial National Bank.

The developers added the type of distinguishing feature that has helped properties thrive in recent years, creating the sprawling Revival Food Hall on the ground floor. The food hall brings in lunch crowds from throughout downtown, adding to the building’s vibrancy. Office tenants include co-working firm WeWork and the headquarters of Paper Source.

I have heard that it is often cheaper for companies to build a new big box store than to reuse and/or renovate one built by another company. Thus, problems with vacancies when companies close locations. Could the same be true for downtown office buildings – the cost of renovation is too high? I find this a little hard to believe given the difficult process that can ensue in order to construct a sizable building in a major city.

Similarly, the strategy of adding enticing dining options echoes what is happening with shopping malls expanding beyond retail to dining, residences, hotels, and a variety of entertainment establishments. The goal is to both promote multiple uses but also cross-traffic between organizations and business as people need to work, eat, enjoy life, and sleep.

Perhaps we will know there is really a problem when multiple older structures are torn down to make way for new buildings.

Another use for vacant retail buildings: schools

The Chicagoland suburb of Palatine is considering converting vacant retail space into a school:

Under the proposal, a shuttered Whole Foods Market and other adjacent space totaling about 80,000 square feet would be renovated for a maximum of 32 classrooms for kindergarten through sixth grade. The school would be in the Park Place shopping center opposite a Walmart, southeast of Dundee and Rand.

Stuckey Construction Co. Inc. of Waukegan would buy the space for about $4.1 million and spend another $13.8 million renovating it, Thompson said. He said District 15 would lease the building with an option to buy it within seven years if the idea receives school board approval…

As part of the plan, Park Place’s owner would build four retail buildings closest to Rand. The former T.J. Maxx/Home Goods portion of the plaza would be demolished to make room for the new retail section and a playground and sports fields covering 2 acres for the school.

District 15’s school at the mall would serve 750 to 800 children in the northeast area, where about 22 percent of the students live but don’t have a neighborhood school. Thompson said he projects the new school would have 74 percent Hispanic students and an overall low-income population of 70 percent.

As retail locations struggle, many communities are looking for answers as to how to use the vacant structures. There a number of possible options but rarely have I seen the idea of schools. I suspect converting these spaces to schools has several distinct advantages:

  1. It could reduce the amount of money needed to provide school buildings. Referendums or tax levies to build new structures often face opposition in suburban communities because of the cost. Additionally, the new school buildings might be in response to a relatively new need in the community tied to new growth but the building may not necessarily be needed in the long term. Converting an existing building could save money.
  2. Retailers often locate in key locations near major intersections. This could make accessing a school easier for a broader range of residents.

Yet, there would also be disadvantages to pursuing this strategy:

  1. Converting the retail structures into schools takes possible land off the tax rolls. Many communities hope vacant structures will be filled by land uses that will contribute property taxes and sales taxes. Schools provide neither.
  2. The location may be central or at a key point but residents often have images of what neighborhood schools should be: located in or very close to residential neighborhoods. Several concerned residents are quoted in this story and they raise safety concerns of being located near major roads and higher-crime areas.

I wonder if a school could also be viewed as a community anchor for a larger mixed-use plan in a redevelopment setting like this. Having some new residences alongside some retail space plus new community (school plus parks, plazas, etc.) could create a new neighborhood setting.

Forgetting the railroad tracks in downtown Chicago when they are covered up by developments

As Chicago grew at a rapid pace in the nineteenth century, the railroad lines that helped make the city largely converged in one place: the south bank of the Chicago River alongside Lake Michigan where goods could be loaded and unloaded for the city or for ships. A 1948 image on the Maggie Daley Park website gives some indication of the scene:

Later development of land, such as Millennium Park, helped eliminate and then cover up more of the tracks. And a new proposed development south of Grant Park may cover up more:

Even as city officials weigh other proposed megadevelopment deals in and near downtown, a Wisconsin developer who played a key role in building Ford Field in Detroit and rebuilding Lambeau Field in Green Bay is pitching another: a multibillion-dollar plan to deck over Metra Electric rail tracks west of Soldier Field to build a mix of residential, office and retail space.

Several sources close to the matter say a partnership headed by Wisconsin executive Bob Dunn has briefed City Hall and other officials on plans, set to be officially unveiled next month, to build over 34 acres of Metra Electric tracks and storage facilities just west of South Lake Shore Drive, from McFetridge Drive south to roughly 20th Street.

Air rights to build over the tracks were acquired more than 20 years ago by developer Gerald Fogelson, who built the huge Central Station residential complex just to the north, south and east of Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue. Fogelson had hoped to develop the adjacent air-rights property himself as a sort of a Central Station 2.0, and as late as 2015 he was looking for a partner, describing then a $3 billion long-term plan with 3,000 apartments and 500 hotel rooms.

But Fogelson’s plans never jelled, and a new group named Landmark Development has emerged, with Fogelson still involved but Dunn, who is president of Milwaukee-based Hammes, now serving as lead developer.

Few would argue that the railroad tracks downtown and along the lakefront contributed to a beautiful aesthetic. Between the noise and the sights, most residents and leaders would prefer to see buildings, parks, and water than tracks. But, I wonder if the continued covering of tracks and building on the air rights might help lead Chicagoans to forget both the historical and current importance of the railroads to Chicago.

As Chicago grew, the railroads helped Chicago become the center of the Midwest as commodities came in from north, west, and south and were turned around for the Chicago market or markets out East. (See Nature’s Metropolis for all the details.) Today, Chicago is still a railroad center with numerous important railroad lines and a lot of freight traffic. The move in recent years to relieve accidents, ensure on-time trains, and traffic congestion is to move more and more of the railroad traffic to the outskirts of the region.

It might be easy today in a world of smartphones to forget the basic railroad infrastructure that helps undergird Chicago and the country. Chicago itself has shifted away from a commodity based economy and joined the ranks of finance and corporate capitals (and done so successfully). Yet, the railroad will continue to be important for Chicago even if it is no longer visible in some of the city’s most iconic locations.

Scrambling to fill empty suburban HQs

Chicago looks at development efforts involving several large suburban corporate campuses that lost their famous tenants to the big city:

For many of these suburbs, the solution isn’t to replace one corporate behemoth with another. Instead, they’re dicing up the land for different uses and radically changing the face of suburbia for decades to come — just as the mammoth corporate enclaves and shopping malls once did. In Oak Brook, for example, an unexpected entity pursued the 34 undeveloped acres at McDonald’s. “As soon as we found out they were leaving, we asked if they wanted to donate it,” says Laure Kosey, executive director of the Oak Brook Park District. “They said, ‘Good idea, but we’re going to put it up for sale.’ ”

So the park district bought it. Residents of Oak Brook, a village that levies no property tax, took the unusual step of taxing themselves by voting for a bond referendum that covers the $15.8 million price tag, with $2 million left over for creating soccer fields and spaces for other recreational activities. The deal closed in December with the promise that the land won’t turn into anything other than a park.

A separate McDonald’s property a few miles from the main campus, next to the Oakbrook Center mall, was sold to Houston-based developer Hines last summer. It will likely become a mix of apartment buildings, office space, and shops — what the developer has called a “new village center.” It’s a similar tack to the one Schaumburg is taking after it was rattled in 2016 by the loss of Motorola Solutions’ headquarters, which moved to the West Loop. Chicago-based UrbanStreet Group bought 225 of the site’s 322 acres and intends to remake the parcel into a mini community with houses and apartments, a retirement home, a driving range, a park, and sidewalk cafés…

Nearby Hoffman Estates has already lost one giant — AT&T, which began vacating its 150-acre satellite campus in 2014 for several smaller sites in Chicago and other suburbs — and doesn’t exactly have a sure thing in another: the hobbled Sears Holdings Corporation, which is fighting to stave off liquidation. New Jersey–based Somerset Development is turning the AT&T site into what it calls an indoor downtown, essentially a 21st-century Bio-Dome that packs offices, restaurants, entertainment spots, conference centers, and hotels under a massive roof. It’s possible a Montessori school, public library, and other communal spaces will be weaved into the site, just as the developer did in New Jersey, where it revamped the huge Bell Labs property…

State representative Fred Crespo, a Democrat from the village, is floating a so-called Big Empties bill, which is being redrafted after it was introduced during the last session of the General Assembly. It would provide hefty incentives, including relief on up to half of the property taxes, for developers that make over old HQs larger than one million square feet.

The redevelopment plans sound like they have promise. The goal is to reduce the ways that headquarters are often set apart from the surrounding land by reincorporating the properties into the fabric of the suburb as well as introduce a variety of uses that will generate more around-the-clock activity. Big office campuses and/or buildings can be impressive displays but they may not contribute much to local community and social life.

On the other hand, I wonder how to weigh these changes against the loss of status that can come with the move of major companies out of the community. Particularly for edge cities, suburbs with millions of square feet of retail and office space and often located near major highways (like Oak Brook, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates), a Fortune 500 company helps establish the suburb’s reputation. New mixed-use neighborhoods may be attractive but they don’t have the same oomph as saying the suburb is home to Sears or McDonald’s or Mondelez.

I, for one, will be very interested to see how this all plays out within twenty years. These properties offer unique opportunities for established wealthier suburbs to do something unique. However, the redevelopment plans could go awry or the what is constructed may not be that interesting or the suburb’s status may never quite recover.