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?

The 21 remaining post-Chicago Fire buildings in The Loop

Gabriel Michael has a list of all the buildings in Chicago’s Loop that were built after the 1871 Chicago Fire:

Within Chicago’s Loop neighborhood, among the urban canyons of soaring glass & steel office buildings, there is a unique and rare collection of architecture: the commercial buildings erected in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. These are commonly referred to as the “Post-Fire” era buildings, built from 1872 up until the advent of modern building materials and advanced construction techniques. These unprecedented approaches to commercial architecture facilitated the birth of the multi-story “skyscraper” in the early-mid 1880s, notably William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building erected in 1883.

Post-Fire buildings’ architectural style is typically Italianate in varying degrees, and virtually identical to those destroyed in the fire. This is significant as it aesthetically forms a portal to the look of the “Pre-Fire” downtown Chicago building stock before it was completely obliterated. Functionally, the majority of the buildings served as wholesale commercial lofts, with each floor housing a different manufacturer of products appropriate for the era: leather goods, textiles, household amenities like pianos, steam heaters and boilers, and iron & woodworking machinery…

According to City of Chicago’s Landmarks Commission surveys, 75 of these buildings still remained in 1975. Fourteen years later, a new survey was done (prompted by the highly controversial “un-landmarking” and demolition of the McCarthy Building for Block 37 development) and showed less than 25 remaining: a staggering number of 50 had been demolished in just a decade and a half, during the “dark ages” of decay in Chicago’s downtown area. These occurred even with growing historic preservation awareness and municipal measures and ordinances in place to “protect” Chicago’s vulnerable historic architecture. Twenty-five years later in 2015, I have been able to identify 21 surviving buildings, displayed in the map below.

Of these 21, only 10 are recognized and protected as Chicago Landmarks. Some of the other 11 are “orange-rated” (or recognized as “historically significant” in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey [CHRS]), and a handful are not even “buildings” proper, but preserved façades with the original building demolished in recent redevelopment on the site. The rest hold no historic recognition, or even inclusion in the CHRS for unknown reasons.

The piece ends with a call for preserving more of these buildings. It would be interesting to have a broader discussion in Chicago regarding this: how many leaders and residents would support such preservation? Is Chicago so committed to economic and residential growth in the Loop that some of these buildings could be “sacrificed”? On the other hand, the preservationists could make a public case for why going beyond these 10 protected buildings is necessary. And would it be better to make a case one by one for the remaining buildings or to argue for all of them at once? Of course, the process of preserving buildings doesn’t just rest on the merits of individual structures but involves a social and political process.

The case for connecting Chicago’s airports with a rail line

The Active Transportation Alliance argues for a rail line connecting O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport:

Imagine if you could get from Midway to O’Hare in less than 40 minutes on public transit.

Currently, that trip takes well over an hour and involves transferring from the Orange to the Blue Line in the Loop before coming all the way back west towards O’Hare. Building the Airport Connector Express, one of 10 expansion projects in our Transit Future vision, could cut the travel time between Chicago’s two airports in half…

The benefit to business travelers and tourists looking to transfer flights is the most obvious benefit of the project, but definitely not the only one. Even more importantly, the line would connect communities across western Cook County to the two major job centers, greatly boosting job access and opportunities for many working class families. It could also reduce traffic congestion on highways and major arterial streets as more people choose to ride transit as it becomes a more convenient option…

These communities and many others like them are not well served by the current hub-and-spoke model of the region’s transit system. Some are connected to downtown by suburban Metra service but we know not all jobs are located downtown.

This should have happened years ago as these are two of the busiest airports in the United States. I can imagine three reasons why it has not happened:

1. Money. Who is going to pay for it? What would the revenues be from passengers using it? However, I don’t think this is the primary reason. Given the projections of economic growth that are sometimes trotted out for other projects, I bet this could be justified (particularly if you account for reduced traffic).

2. For various reasons, the Chicago area has been slow to build mass transit lines to connect the spokes of the hub-and-spoke train model that arose first with railroads in the mid-1800s and then was reinforced with the CTA lines that converge in the Loop. The mass transit in the region suggests people primarily want to head downtown even as job centers have developed throughout the region including Oak Brook, Naperville, Schaumburg, and Northbrook. The highways are a little better; the Tri-State Tollway was one of the first highways to open and I-355 became the next ring out. However, I-355 doesn’t go all the way around (even its extension was limited and covers an area that was not yet very dense) and the proposed Fox Valley Expressway was never constructed.

3. Perhaps there are some issues to work out across these suburban communities. The majority of this proposed track would be outside Chicago city limits and cooperation from nearby suburbs is needed. But, suburbs don’t always agree on projects like these that could bring changes.

My first experience riding Chicago’s Divvy bikes

On a rare 50 degree Chicago day, I rode Chicago’s Divvy bikes for the first time. I made three relatively short trips: from Ogilvie Transportation Center to the Art Institute, from the Art Institute to Navy Pier, and from Navy Pier to Ogilvie. Here is evidence of my rides:

DivvyBikesChicago

My quick thoughts on the experience:

1. It is fairly easy to pay for and to get the bikes. It costs $7 for an all-day pass and rides under 30 minutes are free. There are lots of Divvy stations in the Loop so finding a stand near major attractions isn’t too hard. While it is a pain to have to wonder where other stations are when on the bike, I’m guessing $7 a day doesn’t cover a GPS with every bike.

2. The bikes themselves worked fine: big tires, nice fenders (otherwise I would have been quite splattered from all of the melting snow), good brakes, seats that are easy to adjust. The bikes only have three gears and this is limiting, but Chicago has a limited number of hills.

3. Riding near Millennium Park and Lake Michigan was easy. Riding in the Loop was not. I can handle it as I learned how to ride the mean streets of suburbia while a teenager (this may sound like a joke but we rode on a number of busy streets). Plus, traffic was pretty light in the middle of the day. However, I have a hard time imagining the average tourist wanting to do this. Some street have bike lanes but the only one I saw that was a protected lane was on Dearborn Street, a north-south street. Madison had a bike lane and I rode back to Ogilvie on Adams in the bike lane but both of these had plenty of double-parked taxis, cars, and buses. While drivers noticed me and took a wide berth, how tolerant would they be of slower groups of riders?

I would do this again, particularly in nice weather, as it is a different way to see the city and it can cut down on the time to get from attraction to attraction (less than 15 minutes biking from Navy Pier to the train). But, riding on busy streets is not for everyone and Chicago has a ways to go before having a street infrastructure that makes it easy for visitors to hop on bikes.

Chicago couple moves into trendy West Loop area, mad when it attracts new developments and changes

This could be the cynical alternative headline one might apply to the front-page story of Friday’s Chicago Tribune Business section. Here is a quick overview of this story titled “West Loop project building discontent“:

In recent years, the West Loop has become a magnet for young professionals like Dore who like a balance between urban convenience and peaceful suburbs. But as Dore reached an empty parking lot on the southeast corner of Madison and Green streets, he glared at what he and his neighbors fear will be the end of their peaceful lifestyle — a parking lot that soon could be the site of a 22-story hotel.

“I’m just disappointed,” said Dore, who earlier this year became the reluctant leader of a group of neighbors who fought a losing battle against the high-rise. The first phase of the project, a three-story retail building anchored by a Mariano’s Fresh Market grocery store, is expected to break ground next month.

Their arguments that the project will block views, increase traffic and change the neighborhood’s dynamic have been made by residents in up-and-coming locations for years. As neighborhoods like the West Loop, the South Loop or the Near North Side grow, residents can be at odds with business owners, developers and city officials over the kind of development they want in their communities…

Dore and his wife, who moved to their three-bedroom condo in May 2009, say they are disappointed. Two years ago, they thought they had found a neighborhood close to the Loop that was also an ideal place to raise a family. Five weeks ago, their daughter, Anna, was born. But they are not sure they will stay in the West Loop.

The general argument here is not unusual: residents move into a neighborhood, whether in the city or suburb, the neighborhood starts changing, and residents are unhappy and start making NIMBY arguments. But several things struck me about this article:

1. I’m always somewhat surprised when residents act like the neighborhood can’t change. Particularly in this case, they moved into a trendy West Loop area. They like what this gentrified area has become. But other people and businesses want to move there as well. City neighborhoods often change rapidly and not only is this one trendy, it is relatively close to the Loop. Proponents of the new development suggest that the retail stores are needed and could be profitable. Did the residents really think that the neighborhood was going to be frozen in time?

1a. The site in question was formerly a parking lot. This unattractive use is preferable in a neighborhood? In many cities, parking lots are simply holding spaces until the owners can find a more profitable use. The money in parking lots is not the daily parking but rather waiting for the land to become really valuable and then selling the lot for big money.

2. The residents followed a typical path: form a community group, show up at public hearings, and let your local politicians know about your opinions. Just because their opinions were not followed doesn’t mean the system is broken.

3. At the same time, the article sounds like a classic example of the political economy model of growth. The neighborhood has succeeded to the point where bigger businesses now want to make money in the neighborhood. Politicians like these projects because they bring in more money in terms of jobs and property and sales tax revenues. I don’t know that there is much that the residents could have done to slow this down.

4. This really is written more as a human interest story rather than an overview of the development process. The perspective the newspaper readers get is that these residents have a legitimate grievance. Only later in the story do we hear the reasons why some want the new development to happen. Are we supposed to think that these city residents should be pitied because their West Loop paradise has been lost? The story could have been told in a completely different way that wouldn’t have made this one couple out to be victims. I’m kind of surprised this leads off the Business section because it really is a negative story when it could have highlighted how this neighborhood continues to thrive and attract development.

Considering what the “green Loop” might look like

Amidst talk of eco-cities, a Chicago architectural firm has put together a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent within Chicago’s Loop. How to accomplish this: retrofit older buildings rather than building a lot of new, green buildings.

The architects break what they call the Central Loop into four types of buildings: heritage buildings (1880-1945), which are clad in heat-absorbing masonry and have operable windows; midcentury modern buildings (1945-75), which hog energy due to their vast expanses of glass and heavy reliance on air conditioning; post-energy-crisis buildings (1975-2000), which show greater energy-efficiency but are burdened by an unanticipated rise in computer use; and energy-conscious buildings (2000-present), which continue to improve efficiency but are in relatively short supply.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: The key to cutting pollution isn’t building new green buildings. There simply aren’t enough of them to make a difference. The only way to lower our carbon footprint is to make the buildings we already have more energy-efficient.

That’s possible, as evidenced by the recent transformation of the Merchandise Mart, the massive yet graceful Art Deco commercial and trade show building along the Chicago River. At 4.2 million gross square feet, it’s one of the world’s largest buildings. By taking a variety of steps — from installing energy-saving water pumps to promoting eco-friendly products to the building’s tenants — the Mart cut its overall energy consumption by 21 percent from 2006 to 2010, executives there say.

I wonder how this plan would be received by businesses and building owners. While they suggest energy costs will decrease in the long run and rents may increase, such retrofitting could be costly in the short-term and there could be some anxiety about doing these things in the middle of a tough real estate and business market.

And how much would the City of Chicago really get behind this? Mayor Daley has drawn plaudits in the past for promoting ideas like rooftop gardens but these are limited in number. The City itself faces significant financial troubles in the coming years and I imagine issues like jobs, pensions, crime and the number of police in the streets, will dominate conversations for a while.

I would enjoy seeing their charts or models to see which particular buildings in the Loop use more or less energy. The picture that leads this report on the plan probably shows carbon emissions or energy use by building.