If we gauge Chicago’s economic health by counting the construction cranes dotting the skyline, or by the new building foundations being dug in the neighborhoods, things look good.
More than 30 major high-rises are under construction in the greater downtown, including the nearly finished 1,200-foot-tall Vista Tower at Wacker and Lake Shore Drive. An $800 million renovation is turning the giant Old Main Post Office into a new home for the likes of Uber, Pepsi and Walgreens.
Meanwhile, Mayor Lori Lightfoot seeks to invest $750 million along South and West Side retail corridors over the next three years. And Amazon wants to build a 150,000-square-foot facility on a former industrial site in Pullman.
All of this is just a taste of what’s happening — and set to happen — over the next few years.
Yet behind the scenes and in the business press, the chatter is that our city’s construction party is winding down. A recent Tribune headline declared “Hometown developers of projects like Vista Tower, Lincoln Yards and Bank of America Tower are putting money in other cities.” Shortly thereafter, Crain’s Chicago Business reported “Chicago’s construction boom is about to bust.”
The talk is that developers and lenders are so skittish about the city and state’s precarious finances and the prospect of higher real estate taxes that they’re looking to move on.
To get a handle on the truth of that, we spent the last month talking with the experts. And our takeaway is that while the city and state’s financial difficulties have created a definite restlessness, developers are seeking projects in other cities most because that’s what smart developers have always done — spread their bets. They’re not walking away from the game in Chicago.
At the same time — and we heard this repeatedly — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker need to engage in a much more vigorous and open dialogue with developers and lenders concerned about possible tax increases, policy changes and other vagaries that could scare off new development. This editorial page has expressed uncertainty about Lightfoot’s budget projections. Developers might be doing the same.
“It’s the uncertainty that kills the developers,” a 30-year veteran of the business told us. “If they don’t know the rules it adds a level of uncertainty — so when they are given another option, they take it.”
That said, if there were a major real estate downturn immediately ahead, we’d see measurable signs by now, a major architecture firm’s managing director told us.
“You hear rumblings,” he said. “But nobody’s cancelled projects. Nobody’s put projects on hold. Nobody’s panicking. And we’re still hearing from companies interested in [us designing their] space.”
He also said big planned projects would be scaling back if there were trouble ahead. But the $6 billion Lincoln Yards development proposed for the Chicago River remains set. So does The 78, a sprawling, $7 billion effort along the river’s South Branch.
Chicago’s Riverside Investment & Development — a company proposing a 30-story tower in Denver — broke ground in December on a 50-story office tower at 320 S. Canal St.
Another traditional early warning indicator of any decline in Chicago’s building industry is who’s renting — or not. Even as new buildings go up, developers always fear the possibility of rising real estate taxes scaring off commercial tenants. One real estate professional used the example of the 320 S. Canal project (with which he isn’t connected).
“They’ll be committing tenants to 10- to 15-year leases and taxes [are passed on] right to their tenants,” he said. “A tenant could say, ‘If I might get hit with a big tax bill, maybe I look at suburbia.’ And right now, people just don’t know.”
If developers fear that they may have to eat the cost of a real estate tax hike in order to keep tenants happy, they’re sure to start building less. And tenants will start shopping for smaller spaces as a hedge against big tax increases.
Developers “love certainty, especially when talking about taxes,” said Curt Bailey, president of developer Related Midwest, the firm behind The 78. “That said, any increase in taxes would be a relatively small cost of doing business.”
‘The bull doesn’t run forever’
Another professional said he sees a leveling-off rather than a downturn: “We’ve been in a bull market for years, and the bull doesn’t run forever.”
Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development, said the Lightfoot administration has created an advisory council of city officials and developers to address taxation, real estate reassessments and public policies that could hamper development. The group’s next meeting is this Monday, Feb. 3.
It’s exactly the sort of conversation developers say they’re looking for. As one builder told us, they’re looking for the mayor to ask: “Here’s what I gotta do — what’s the impact on you?”
Chicago’s economic health has depended on robust real estate development since a surveyor, James Thompson, plotted out the city’s first formal streets in 1830.
The job falls now to the mayor, governor, creative developers and, for that matter, the Cook County assessor’s office, to keep the bull running.
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