Building and Neighborhood: A Symbiotic Relationship

When a massive new commercial property, something like a global company’s new headquarters, moves into a neighborhood in Chicago, there’s no doubt that area will change.

The first example that comes to mind (probably because it’s Torque’s home) is Fulton Market. Ever since Google moved in, the grit of Fulton Market is chic. Chicago’s meat packing district has followed the same path as New York’s.

But we all know that’s not the only place in Chicago this kind of change is happening, and that there are a lot of questions to wrestle with here.


A symbiotic relationship

“There’s been a symbiosis between city and developer,” Jack McKinney, Jr. said to us when discussing Sterling Bay’s relationship to the West Loop.

And that’s often the case. Commercial properties and the neighborhoods they’re in have a symbiotic relationship. Up and coming neighborhoods attract big developments. And when large commercial buildings move in, it changes the area, adding more people and energy.

Walking around the West Loop and Fulton Market, it’s obvious how Google has changed the area. But the area changed a lot for Google, too. In trying to attract Google, and then in trying to give them a good home, the city made big moves with a new “L” stop, infrastructure and other improvements that brought vibrancy and traffic.

And most would view these changes as positive. For now. Right now, the area’s meatpacking companies’ employees and the millennial talent that’s pouring in are sharing sidewalks just fine. But can it stay this way forever? That’s what remains to be seen.


What markets are next?

The South Loop has been changing for a long time. It was an institution that played the first role in giving that neighborhood new life, when Columbia College started buying up all of its buildings in the late 90s/early 2000s. Their Wabash Arts Corridor continues to add a lot of vibrancy to the area. In more recent years, luxury condos and apartment complexes are going up there all the time and there’s been a huge investment in Motor Row.

But if the trend keeps moving south, will we see revitalization of the south side that enriches communities, or gentrification that pushes long time natives out?

Although most areas face these types of social issues, there is one promising market that faces almost none – because technically no one lives there. Goose Island. “I’m a big believer in Goose Island,” McKinney said, “but I think it is going to be a 15-20 year development cycle for that neighborhood.” The city is beginning to address the location’s access issues with a plan to widen the bridges and planning for a bike pathway. The R2 development is the biggest project planned for the site right now, but others like Hines are working all angles to bring that plot of land to life.


An active role

Often the relationship between commercial building and neighborhood, good or bad, happens naturally. But what are some ways commercial real estate can take a more active role, one that creates positive change? And who is already doing it?

One interesting way buildings are doing this is through graffiti. In areas where graffiti is already a part of the neighborhood, the owners of new developments moving in are commissioning graffiti art pieces to accompany them. This is something that raises a lot of questions and mixed feelings. Through these partnerships between corporations and graffiti artists, the city that has been fighting against graffiti for years is turning it into public art that’s actually enhancing communities. It sounds like a good thing. But is it? Seeing these corporate-sponsored murals filling up neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Logan Square, where rents are rising exuberantly, it makes you think.

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether a building is making a positive or negative change on the area around it. But sometimes it’s easy to tell. Zeller Realty takes the philanthropic route, holding community involvement as a pillar. They’re involved with many charities, including Tutoring Chicago, Chicago AIDS Foundation, and Chicago HELP Initiative.

Like the mission of NAIOP to “promote responsible, sustainable development that creates jobs and benefits the communities in which our members work and live,” commercial real estate properties can play a big role in enhancing the communities they’re a part of. And while there is nuance around what it means to do it the “right” way, it’s important that we all strive to make a positive impact in any way we can.

The next opportunities come in highly anticipated new developments such as the old Post Office, Amazon H2’s potential arrival, Riverside’s big vision for the Union Station, and Farpoint’s huge plans for the Michael Reese site. We’re watching along with you.