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The Fuse Has Been Lit for the South Loop's Next Big Building Boom

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When the early-2000s housing bubble was still being referred to as "great times," developers in Chicago wanted to build new projects and one of the only places to do that cheaply and easily was in the neighborhood just south of downtown known as the South Loop. Previously a struggling post-industrial area, the neighborhood had a few enclosed subdivisions surrounded by walls to hold out the blight. With the market's high demand for new homes, high-rise condominiums hit the South Loop hard and fast, turning cheap land into tall buildings with great views and private parking. When the housing market tanked during the recession, the overnight transformation of the South Loop was halted immediately. Some condos turned into apartments at the last minute, others sat vacant for years while developers who hadn't gone bankrupt turned their attention to other parts of town.

But things are different now. The economy is on an upswing while an emerging technology industry in Chicago pulls the focus of young and smart people back to downtown and changing tastes have put an urbanized lifestyle back into fashion. So-called Millennials want to work downtown and live there, too, but on one condition above all else: they want to rent. Suddenly the South Loop is looking good again, and there are now plenty of new developments on the horizon.

Earlier this week, when almost 1,500 apartments worth of new projects in the South Loop were announced in one evening, it became a little easier to see it coming. That came alongside word that the Essex Inn on Michigan Avenue would flip part of its property into a new 48 story residential building, and was followed up by an early look at a new supertall skyscraper designed by Helmut Jahn headed to Michigan Avenue as well. It's been a hell of a week for the South Loop.

It's taken a while for the wheels to start turning, but developers from across the globe have pounced on the South Loop in a way that we're only now beginning to see.

Park Front Starchitecture

The biggest news came from the tallest buildings, designed by world-famous architects and located at the perimeter of downtown's Grant Park. The first, by Rafael Viñoly, sits at the south end of the park, and is a 829 foot stack of cubes meant to be joined by a twin in a few years. The second, while not formally announced, has been revealed as a 1030' supertall cantilevered to hang over its next door neighbor and offer sky-high views at presumably similar prices.

The Two SCBs

At the same public meeting as the Viñoly tower, two different developers showed plans for projects both designed by the firm SCB. One is an ambitious 48 story apartment tower that would be the area's tallest building that isn't on the park or lakefront. The second is a mixed-use project bringing apartments, retail, and a hotel to the McCormick area on Cermak.

Birth of McCormick Entertainment District

The SCB-designed mixed-use project joins a spate of similar developments on Cermak Road around McCormick Place that are intended to launch the area as a more exciting, pedestrian-friendly district for events, entertainment, and shopping. McCormick's owners are spearheading a project to build a stadium and events space, as well as a Mariott Marquis hotel and a data center. Across the street, McHugh is planning a hotel, lots of retail, and another data center. Data centers like to stick close to each other for infrastructure reasons.

The Student Influence

Other than empty nesters who were convinced to move there 10 to 15 years ago, one of the largest new constituencies of the South Loop is students. There is a large number of universities in the area, and several private and school-affiliated student housing buildings have sprung up in the south end of the Loop and within the South Loop itself. One of the last shoes left to drop in the neighborhood is for SAIC to reveal their design for the campus they're planning to build on the juicy property they bought on State Street, but aside from new developments, the surge of students living in the area has changed the dynamic of the area in other ways. With a lot of young people in the area, newer and more energetic businesses have begun to move in to cater to them. Fast food restaurants suddenly are able to stay open 24 hours to serve drunk college kids at 2 a.m., and locally-owned coffee bars have sprung up as well. By dragging the average age of the South Loop down a few decades, the surge in students has helped kickstart a change in the retail scene that will be needed to support all these people who will live in these new apartments coming soon.

Birth of River South

On northern riverfront area of the South Loop, just a few blocks from Willis Tower, there's a lot of completely undeveloped land right along the river. The biggest piece of land is an area south of Roosevelt Road that was created when they straightened the river in 1929 and nobody figured out what to do with it. It's currently being untangled from a legal hell over ownership, but meanwhile a bunch of the riverfront land was purchased by Lend Lease and CMK who plan to turn it into a massive residential development, the first part of which was unveiled just last week.

The plan is to call the area River South, which is probably for the best, because the name "South Loop" gets spread pretty thin when you try to use it to cover everything from Congress to Cermak. As developments continue to breathe new life into the area, smaller neighborhoods should form their own names and identities, just like Printer's Row and the Prairie District did before.

With development in Chicago moving at the pace it is, buildings have to go somewhere. The fact that all of this energy is focused on the South Loop probably has more to do with cost and availability than it represents some kind of divine anointing of the neighborhood as the next great place to be. However, it is in a unique position to see itself transform from one thing to another in record time. The city is expanding, and the path of least resistance is south. The South Loop booming means Chicago is booming, and it's hard not to feel good when Chicago is doing well.