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.

Drawing artistic inspiration from growing up around McMansions

Artist Katherine Vetne builds upon a childhood spent around McMansions:

Vetne says her interests in exploring (and subverting) objects of status and consumerism started when she was growing up in Newburyport, Mass. She observed the differences between established “old money” and the newly affluent: A lot of the newer families built “McMansion” houses that looked like new versions of the town’s historic homes in an attempt to emulate that status.

Those experiences led to a unique form of art:

Vetne, 31, of San Francisco, has been building a reputation as a sculptor who works in an unusual medium: destruction. Vetne’s best-known work during the past three years has been a series of sculptures made from kiln-melted housewares crystal, which takes a distinctive, puddle-like shape when heated.

She then “mirrors” the melted crystal mass in a chemical process that turns the blobs into reflective objects. The pieces are presented individually or in big groups, like in her “Guilty Pleasures” installation that was part of the Catharine Clark Gallery’s summer show, “We tell ourselves stories … In order to live.” Ford and Vetne took the shopping trip at Clark’s invitation to find the raw material for a piece Ford recently commissioned from Vetne.

The idea of working with crystal, whether it’s fine Baccarat or more mass-market Avon, appeals to Vetne, who is interested in exploring issues of class, gender and materialism. “At the crux of my practice is the more middle-class people with some amount of resources trying to look ‘higher class’ than they are through the objects they acquire. I am interested in concepts of visual excess and how they’re supposed to communicate something. Usually, it’s ‘I have a lot of money.’”

Given the general reputation of McMansions, this is not surprising: take objects by which aspiring people try to build up their status and then destroy them to show what those objects are really about. Perhaps it would even be more shocking if an artist celebrated McMansions.

I’m also trying to imagine this destruction process applied to actual McMansions or parts of McMansions. Could a piece of performance art involve taking a wrecking ball to a McMansion? Or, imagine taking a two story foyer to a museum and showing it falling apart every so often, like the way “Concert for Anarchy” displays a piano in an unusual form. Or, take granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and destroy them.

How many mega-celebrities live in older homes?

Reading about LeBron James living in a new large home in Los Angeles that replaced a midcentury-modern home, I wonder how many of the super celebrities live in older homes. If you have that much money and status, do you have to purchase a new or recent home with all the amenities? Does new celebrity money typically translate into a new, large, architecturally suspect home?

Some earlier posts on the subject:

The Kardashians/Wests selling a McMansion or mansion.

California celebrities with green lawns even during severe drought.

Kobe Bryant with a McMansion or a mansion.

Matt Ryan and Tom Brady with their own suburban McMansionsMatt Ryan and Tom Brady with their own suburban McMansions.

NASCAR wives in McMansions.

Perhaps alongside a high-priced and rare car, a McMansion is a status symbol of new celebrities.

City landmarks, maps, and status

A Chicago group recently used a survey to look at how well big city residents know local landmarks:

According to a 360 Chicago spokesperson, the impetus for the survey was to “see how familiar residents in major cities across the U.S are with their hometowns, but also determine which cities have the type of stand-out landmarks that even outsiders can pick out on a map.”

The survey quizzed 2,000 residents from 10 cities, wherein every person was provided a list of 10 famous landmarks in their city and asked to ID those pinned on the map (five of the 10 listed were not pinned).

Some of the Chicago landmarks included were Robie House, Navy Pier, Second City, Merchandise Mart, the Art Institute and the 606 trail.

The Art Institute was the best known landmark, while the 606 stumped the most folks.

The data revealed Chicago residents were savvier at identifying Los Angeles landmarks than those in their own backyard. Not sure what that says about Chicagoans, but at least residents from other major metropolises in the country know the Chicago landscape more than their own towns — shout out to Houston and Seattle!

I do not know exactly how the survey was put together but three parts intrigue me:

  1. Landmarks are important for big cities, both for residents and possible visitors. For residents, they provide a sense of the character of the city. For visitors, they become perhaps the only thing they really know or have seen in the city. Either way, landmarks are anchors for millions of people. This could be seen as strange; could the Sears Tower or Empire State Building really represent the lives of millions of people?
  2. Putting landmarks on a map requires an extra set of knowledge. Landmark buildings and their images or silhouettes are all over the place. But, being able to place them in a particular context is much harder. Residents of a big city, let alone visitors, may have few opportunities to make it to other parts of the city.
  3. Landmarks are tied to the status of the city. I would guess larger and more important cities are likely to have more recognizable landmarks. For example, I could not likely pick out a single building or landmark from Houston even though it is the fourth largest city in the United States. Some of these landmarks become status symbols for the city. On the other hand, some buildings are just really unusual – think the Space Needle in Seattle or the Opera House in Sydney – and this could help put a particular city “on the map.”

When a neighborhood doesn’t want a budget version of Whole Foods

Whole Foods has selected a LA neighborhood for its first Whole Foods 365 and residents are not happy:

Let’s take a quick trip to Los Angeles’ bourgeois-hip Silver Lake neighborhood, where more than a few residents are up in arms over Whole Foods’ recent decision to not go through with a planned full-service Whole Foods but rather to build the first store in the chain’s new line of budget outlets aimed at millennials, 365 by Whole Foods Market. “Whole Foods! We want the REAL thing,” reads a Care2 petition recently posted by neighborhood resident and music executive Dawn White. “People in this neighborhood are desperate for a local high end market with the best quality foods, which are often not the 365 brand,” White wrote. Online, commenters began to call the proposed store “Half Foods.”

What is behind this reaction?

Silver Lake is not the first nor likely the last enclave where residents are literally begging for a Whole Foods. Online petitions asking for stores frequently read like crosses between market research reports, sales pitches, and letters from spurned would-be lovers. “Between the families, the young professionals, long-time residents and university students in the neighborhood, we have more than enough demand to satisfy Whole Foods,” went one 2013 plea out of Washington, D.C. As for White, her missive told the organic superstore that it was “wholly wrong” about who lived in the neighborhood. “Residents of this neighborhood can afford this,” she added.

In a world where all too many people define themselves by what they can afford to purchase and do actually buy, Whole Foods gives the sort of person David Brooks so memorably labeled bobos, short for bourgeois bohemians, validation, not to mention a bit of convenience in a busy life. It endorses that decision to drop more than $800,000 on a tiny two-bedroom Spanish or craftsman bungalow with a Viking stove or a Brooklyn brownstone that’s located near a Superfund site. A local Whole Foods is a stamp of approval from the United States’ greater corporate culture, but one that at the same time allows the people who crave it to still believe they remain just a bit outside the mainstream.

Up and coming or hip or gentrifying neighborhoods are interesting places. On one hand, they want to live on the edge with lots of cultural opportunities and relatively cheap housing. They don’t want to be conventional, typically associated with higher incomes and less nightlife. They want to be authentic, gritty, and real. On the other hand, they often want to have some markers of their success as well as amenities. This could come in the form of Starbucks, rising housing values, or even grocery stores. The presence of these upscale places or items hints at the wealth in the neighborhood and suggests it is a place worth investing in.

But, these two competing forces are difficult to reconcile. Is having a Whole Foods hip? What kind of people shop there as opposed to those who shop at budget grocery stores? Do national retail chains hint at rising land values, eventually putting pressure on lower-income residents to move? There are likely more neighborhood discussions to come as residents try to exert their influence in the direction they would like their community to go.

“Having…a bigger McMansion…probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.”

A journalist discusses keeping up with the Joneses and includes this bit involving McMansions:

So what does this mean for the drive to keep up with the Joneses? It means that having a nicer car, a bigger McMansion, a greener lawn or even the latest iPhone probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.

How many suburban status symbols can you include in one sentence? While this piece summarizes the detrimental effects of spending in order to keep up a wealthier reference group around us, this reference to McMansions is not unusual. Here, the McMansion stands in for a pattern of excessive consumption, a consumer good that isn’t necessary, requires long-term debt, and doesn’t really lead to long-term well being (at least such satisfaction based on comparisons with others).

Perhaps the more scandalous suggestion here is that the iPhone could function in the same way as a McMansion. The iPhone costs a lot less, is much more common (at least 500 million units have been sold – imagine that number of McMansions), and might even enhance sociability (as opposed to the McMansions emphasis on private space). The iPhone is a status symbol in its own right. But, the iPhone doesn’t attract the same level of criticism…

Drought leads to more lawn spray-painting, lawn removal in California

Painting the lawn is not new but the practice has picked up in California with the big drought underway:

For about $300, the New York Times reports, homeowners can transform their sun-baked brown lawns into lush, bright shades of green. According to the Times, “there are dozens of lawn paint options available, from longer-lasting formulas typically used on high-traffic turf such as ballparks and golf courses, to naturally derived products that rely on a highly concentrated pigment.”

Drew McClellan, who launched a lawn-spraying business in July, told the paper he has more requests than he can handle…

According to LawnLift, a San Diego lawn paint manufacturer, sales of its “all-natural, non-toxic and biodegradable grass and mulch paint” have tripled this year.

In April, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order that limited the watering of “ornamental landscape or turf” to no more than two days per week. Violators are subject to fines of up to $500…

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told The Associated Press that the consortium received requests to remove 2.5 million square feet in residential lawns in July, up from 99,000 in January. The Municipal Water District of Orange County is taking in 20 to 30 applications a day, the AP said. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves Silicon Valley, received more than 1,700 requests.

Between the ripping out of lawns and painting the lawn, this is a rather large project. Two quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this signals a long-term shift away from lawns in California. The drought may answer this question, particularly if it lasts a long time, but it would be interesting to see what happens if the drought ends soon: would people go back to lawns?

2. Could a green lawn now become even more of a status symbol, symbolizing that a person has the means to keep it going even under these dry conditions? Or, perhaps the shift away from lawns will be accompanied by the development of new status symbols in yards.