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Two projects to look forward to when fun comes back

Despite challenges, developers of an esports arena and music venue push past the gloom of the pandemic.

A rendering of the esports arena called Surge at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave.
A rendering of the esports arena called Surge at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave.
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The old saw that Chicago has two seasons — winter and construction — applies to roadwork, but it’s equally true for those who put up buildings.

For projects underway, some work can occur in subzero temperatures at a slower pace. Ventures that have just finished the planning and financing typically don’t start moving dirt until the spring thaw.

So a lot of developers and their backers are peering into 2022, wondering about the economy and its biggest influence: the pandemic. Add to those concerns: Chicago’s crime, now so pervasive the moneyed crowd can’t ignore it, along with complications from inflation and disruptions in the supply chain. Not to mention property taxes, a perennial subject.

Developers find a way around it all, though, and there are more residential and commercial projects slated for the central city. I needed to check on the progress of two that are unique. They deal in entertainment and nightlife and, once completed, just might help Chicagoans get back to enjoying themselves if we ever shake COVID-19.

Both are moving forward, as it turns out, although one has had its hiccups. The projects in focus here are the esports arena at 2500-48 S. Wabash Ave., near McCormick Place, a potential game-changer in leisure activities, and the conversion of the old Morton Salt building at 1357 N. Elston Ave. into a music venue.

It’s known for its rooftop sign with the Morton Salt girl — “When it rains, it pours” — that’s visible from the Kennedy Expressway. The sign is an official city landmark, but with rules that allow it to be updated. That’s happening now, because the old roof had to go.

Both projects got city approvals earlier this year.

The esports arena is a bet that virtual reality will drive in-person competition and entertainment. But actual reality in the form of shipping delays and higher costs for steel and concrete have caused a delay, said developer Scott Greenberg, president of Lincolnshire-based ECD. He previously aimed to open next fall. Now, he’s looking at construction starting in the spring and finishing in 2023.

“Ultimately, this is going to get built,” he said of the $30 million project. It would span 108,000 square feet over two floors, with a large room for goggle-wearing game players to cause fake mayhem. Surrounding it would be quieter spaces for eating, imbibing and spectating. Greenberg has enlisted the firm of prominent Chicago architect Jackie Koo for the design.

“Ten weeks’ lead time [for supplies] has become a six-month lead time,” Greenberg said. He said he’s tweaking the design to save money. “Suppliers are putting you in a bidding war with others,” he said, although he expects that situation won’t last. “Most people in the industry are expecting prices to come down.” He said he’s also had issues with ComEd and the CTA, whose Green Line abuts the property.

Called Surge, his project would have a ticketed capacity of 1,040 and is designed for post-pandemic interaction. If we truly get there, Greenberg stands to benefit from McCormick Place returning to normal. Who knows, a casino could land in the mix, too.

At the Morton Salt site, co-developer Craig Golden also is sitting on prime property, about 4 acres just south of where Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards mega-development is situated. His site’s old shed would get a music venue, a business he knows well. Golden’s Blue Star Properties has diverse ventures here, including Thalia Hall in Pilsen. A brewery and office space also are planned, with Morton Salt leasing some of it.

Golden said the supply chain hasn’t given him any grief on an investment of around $50 million. He hopes to have the facility done next fall, but with outdoor space available next summer. Besides live music, he wants to book trade shows and corporate events. Partners include the development firm R2, and Lamar Johnson Collaborative is the architecture firm.

He said the property can accommodate 6,000 people, counting the space outdoors. Golden hopes to issue details about musical bookings in a few weeks. It figures to be a boost for a live entertainment industry that’s been decimated.

Golden also sits right where Chicago will grow next. The Morton Salt building is just west of Goose Island, where the city has authorized high-rise housing.

Golden follows Lincoln Yards for personal and business reasons; he co-founded Sterling Bay in 1987, leaving it in 2008. “It’s a big, gaping prairieland now. I’m looking forward to what they can do there, but it’s a different sort of vibe. They took down some older, vintage buildings, the kind I like,” Golden said. But he won’t mind the neighbors and customers that new construction will yield.

They’re working on different sides of town, but Greenberg and Golden share optimism for post-pandemic contentment and routine. We could all use that outlook.

A rendering of plans for a redeveloped Morton Salt building at 1357 N. Elston Ave.
A rendering of plans for a redeveloped Morton Salt building at 1357 N. Elston Ave.
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