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Sweet: Trump’s Chicago real estate flop

Retail space on the terrace and riverwalk levels of Trump Tower have been vacant since the building was completed. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — A central premise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s pitch to voters is that his business success qualifies him for the Oval Office — but his years-long effort to rent retail space at the base of Trump’s namesake tower in Chicago has been a total failure.

The billionaire businessman and reality show star, the son of a builder, highlights his real estate development expertise as a selling point. Indeed, a selection of Trump’s construction projects — mostly in New York — were elements in two biographical videos about Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Trump International Hotel and Tower is a gleaming 92-story glass building at 401 N. Wabash Ave. along the Chicago River and just west of Michigan Avenue. Giant letters spell out Trump’s name on the riverfront side of the building.

Some dozen stories below the Trump sign is a testament to Trump’s Chicago flop.

About 70,000 square feet of space on the terrace and riverwalk levels has never been rented since the building opened in 2008. That means Trump’s organization each year leaves potentially millions of rent dollars on the table, as the vacant space generates no revenue.

Trump’s real estate experience did not guarantee the success of the commercial/retail aspect of the Chicago skyscraper, which also contains a hotel, condominiums and parking.

Trump complains about media bias. So I want to underscore that the admissions about why the Trump Tower retail space is not rented come from a legal brief filed with the Cook County Assessor by the law firm Trump’s own organization hired to seek a property tax break.

Trump’s own brief states the devastating shortcomings of the tower’s commercial and retail space.

In May, the Sun-Times’ Chris Fusco and Tim Novak reported on how Trump and his investors were able to cut millions of dollars from their Cook County property tax bills, hiring Klafter & Burke, the law firm run by clout king Ald. Ed Burke (14th), for a series of successful appeals.

In a legal brief dug up by Novak and Fusco, the commercial/retail space is described as “empty and un-leasable” with details on all its shortcomings.

“There are no direct or easy ways to reach the space from Michigan Avenue. The space has remained vacant since the hotel opened in 2008, even though the hotel has used real estate brokers from several different firms from both Chicago and New York,” the brief said.

In 2014, the real estate firm RKF was hired to market the property, but the space is “so detrimental” that no one wants it — even for offices, the brief states.

The configuration of the empty retail space on the terrace and riverwalk levels of Trump Tower is less than ideal, attorneys argued in seeking to cut the tower’s property tax bill. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
The configuration of the empty retail space on the terrace and riverwalk levels of Trump Tower is less than ideal, attorneys argued in seeking to cut the tower’s property tax bill. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Trump, the real estate mogul, should know how to squeeze out cash from real estate, right? Here’s more from the brief.

“While the retail is at the bottom of one of Chicago’s luxury hotels, there is no market for retail space which has no direct access to major foot or car traffic.

“…The retail area is not standard square or rectangular space, but rather curved and angled with large columns running through most of the spaces. There are horrible sight lines from a retail perspective.”

But that space — described as “un-leasable” to the Cook County Assessor when it comes to getting a property tax reduction — is transformed into “breathtaking” opportunities for potential tenants in the marketing materials that were on the RFK website Friday.

The river walk and terrace areas are “ideal for restaurants and retailers looking for a high-profile location and direct access to Trump Tower’s hotel guests, condominium residents and locals alike.”

Moreover, the pitch continues, “with direct access to Millennium Park and Chicago’s shopping mecca, North Michigan Avenue, the visibility and traffic surrounding this location is unparalleled in the market.

“Take advantage of tremendous co-tenancy from world-class hotels, shopping, dining and entertainment destinations, all within walking distance in River North and along the Magnificent Mile.”

Trump and his three children were all involved in the Chicago project, constructed on the site of the former Sun-Times building. Trump, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric — all players in Trump’s presidential campaign — were at the topping off ceremony in October 2008.

On that day, Donald Jr. discussed the retail space on the terrace and riverwalk, telling the Sun-Times: “We’ve had a great response and have many offers.”

The years have passed. Empty is empty. How great is that?

At one time the Sun-Times’ presses, at the bottom of the old building, rumbled daily Today, a big sign on a Trump riverwalk window says “Retail Space Available.”

Empty retail space on the terrace and riverwalk levels of Trump Tower sits about where the Chicago Sun-Times’ presses used to be, when the newspaper’s building occupied the site. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Empty retail space on the terrace and riverwalk levels of Trump Tower sits about where the Chicago Sun-Times’ presses used to be, when the newspaper’s building occupied the site. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times