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COVID-19 and crime team up against Chicago’s reputation

Weeks ago, employers talked about getting people back after Labor Day. That timetable has been extended as the virus persists and people worry about civil unrest.

Bridges over the Chicago River are lifted after looting broke out overnight in the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods, Monday Aug. 10, 2020.
Bridges over the Chicago River are lifted after looting broke out overnight in the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The summer of our discontent is waning. It is giving way to an autumn of reckoning, maybe dread for some.

The pandemic still prowls the land, the economy is in shambles and will get worse if Congress lets the layoff chain spread to new industries. We’re fast approaching an election that’s making us confront our national divisions. It can be a time of raw anger in a country incapable of having a civil discussion of differences, and people are afraid of what might result, whether it’s more of the looting, police on edge and making bad decisions, or 17-year-olds carrying semi-automatics.

But hey, it’s almost Labor Day, so to those who have worked from home, y’all headed back to the office? That was the refrain early in this pandemic, during a more hopeful spring. Now the signs say a lot of people don’t want much to do with the office if that means heading into the city. COVID-19 is just one reason why.

Managers of downtown office buildings tell me their properties have about 5% to 10% of their population on a typical workday. They expect a little more activity after Labor Day, but how much could depend on school situations.

With remote learning mostly the norm in the city and suburbs, working parents need to supervise their children. Biggies such as Google and Facebook have extended voluntary work-from-home policies through July 2021, and other employers have gone at least to next January.

“There are days I see more boat traffic on the river than cars on the streets,” said Lance Knez, vice president of Hines Interests and president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, which has worked closely with the city to make sure health guidelines are followed and properties are ready for more people.

For Knez, the bottom line is this, “For people to come back to work, employers and employees must first feel safe.” That applies both to office cleaning regimens and to what’s going on outside.

Vicki Noonan, managing principal at Cushman & Wakefield, said she hopes more tenants will populate buildings after Labor Day, at least gradually. Some employers have talked about putting people on an alternate-day schedule for working from home, she said.

Noonan, a CTA rider, said the transit agencies need to do a better job explaining how clean the systems are to allay some concerns. As for safety, she said, “I can say some of our people are saying living in the city is becoming harder.”

“I believe in the urban core,” Noonan said, but investors and developers are finding it easy to bypass Chicago and companies here are postponing expansion decisions. COVID-19 and civil unrest lead off the reasons, but investors also are put off by a crisis in government finances and by public pension debt, she said.

A June survey by the real estate firm CBRE of its national, big-company client base addressed the changing character of work. In it, 61% of 126 senior-level executives said all employees will be able to work outside the office at least part time. It also found only 10% of companies are considering leaving high-density urban cores, although satellite offices or flexible space deals may figure more prominently.

So don’t expect downtown or other business centers to roar back to life soon. The implications for Chicago’s commercial health and for our feelings about living here are enormous. The problems of the pandemic and violence are woven in the public mind.

Aldermen and reporters’ inboxes have gotten complaints the city has gotten out of control and people are afraid to be downtown or go to many places in their communities. For some, that’s old news, but the anger is spreading. The remarks about downtown haven’t been like that since the 1970s.

Steven Levy, president of Sudler Property Management, sent a letter Aug. 12 to Mayor Lori Lightfoot that was made public. He told Lightfoot the residents in the more than 100 condo associations he serves don’t feel safe, and he appealed for her help.

“They’re avoiding neighborhood walks after 6 p.m.,” Levy wrote. “At night, they don’t stand too close to their windows or dare to enjoy their outdoor balconies or terraces. Their children, who will likely be homebound for the remainder of the year, are forced to play indoors because local parks and playgrounds have been inhabited with litter, vandalism and crime.

“This is not a way to live, and I can’t fault homeowners when they tell me they’re considering leaving Chicago.”

The departing summer finds the city’s reputation in doubt. Lightfoot, who fairly or not is in the front lines for all this, might find the pandemic alone isn’t her biggest worry.

Oliver Peoples, 941 N. Rush St., after looting broke out overnight in the Gold Coast and surrounding neighborhoods., Aug. 10, 2020.
Oliver Peoples, 941 N. Rush St., after looting broke out overnight in the Gold Coast and surrounding neighborhoods.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file