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Apartment developer aims to please — and disrupt

With a new building in the Loop and another planned for North Lake Shore Drive, Jonathan Holtzman pursues a business model that calls for higher-end services.

Jonathan Holtzman of City Club MDA Apartments at his development at 63 E. Lake St.
Jonathan Holtzman of City Club MDA Apartments at his development at 63 E. Lake St.
Thomas M. Kubik/TK Photography

Jonathan Holtzman is a developer who seldom is wowed by what his competitors do. He can look across a Chicago skyline embellished by apartment towers of recent vintage and find a certain sameness.

“Developers in Chicago seem to be obsessed with building concrete high-rises with floor-to-ceiling glass with small bathrooms,” he said. Holtzman also mentioned competitors’ small closets — “Chicago has four seasons,” said the Detroiter — and few nooks for a home office— “People have always worked from home.”

Holtzman takes issue with apartment builders who flip their projects to an investor once the units are leased. The CEO of City Club MDA Apartments is a long-term owner of what he builds, with past projects including a Gold Coast building and renovations of the landmarks Randolph Tower and Fisher Building downtown. He believes his approach leads to a different product. His marketing pitch is an “apartment hotel” strategy, with higher-end amenities and finishes.

“We don’t build to sell. When you build to sell, your customer is the buyer of your apartment community. When you build to keep, your customer is your renter,” Holtzman said.

“We’ve always felt that the hospitality industry treated their customers better than do the owners of apartment buildings. We never understood why.” He doesn’t mind being called a “disrupter” in his field. “That’s pretty much my reputation,” he said.

Holtzman’s attitude is on display at 63 E. Lake St., the southeast corner of Lake and Wabash Avenue, where he has opened an expansion of an apartment project he completed in 2006. It’s a seven-story “modern” structure alongside the original 23-floor building on the corner. The original is a 1927 design of Daniel Burnham Jr. that Holtzman converted from offices to apartments. The addition has frontage on Wabash but still uses the Lake Street address.

The City Club MDA Apartments at 63 E. Lake St., with a seven-story addition connected to the taller 1927 building on the left.
The City Club MDA Apartments at 63 E. Lake St., with a seven-story addition connected to the taller 1927 building on the left.
Provided

The “modern” wing offers 81 units, studios to penthouses, in different layouts, adding to the 190 units in the original building. Tenants have access to indoor and outdoor theaters, a heated outdoor pool and wraparound sun loungers. Holtzman said the complex doesn’t have a doorperson. Instead, it has a 24/7 concierge available to help with any of life’s problems.

He also touts roomier closets and “sexy bathrooms.” Traditionalists on the marketing team might prefer a term like “luxurious,” with oversized tubs meant for soaking and rain-style showerheads. Some units are for short-term rentals, even for the night, but these aren’t Airbnb units. They would be for corporate stays.

Rents range from about $1,400 to more than $3,000 per month, he said.

Holtzman was in town last week to officially open the modern wing and to host some tours. He said 75% of the units in the new building have tenants and that occupancy in the original building is 95%. Leasing inquiries have increased as society slowly gets the upper hand on the pandemic. Holtzman sees it as a sign that renters, especially millennials, are ready to get back to big-city living, with the attractions and the — well, other millennials — that they miss.

“The traffic that leads to rentals has doubled and tripled since March,” Holtzman said. He sees the Loop as being an underserved market with plenty of condos but a paucity of rentals.

It’s an optimistic outlook that he’s bringing to the Lake View community as well, where Holtzman wants to build on what may be the last vacant site overlooking North Lake Shore Drive. The site is nearly two acres at Waveland Avenue that for years has slithered out of developers’ grasps.

Details may change, but Holtzman has proposed a two-section building with 19 and six stories, containing 333 units. In April, the East Lake View Neighbors gave the project a key letter of support. It also has the backing of condo associations for buildings at 3600 and 3660 N. Lake Shore Drive. The latter is a high-rise called the New York. Despite the address, the building is set back from the Drive. Holtzman’s building would go up east of it and block some views, but its alignment has proven satisfactory to the condo association.

Holtzman hopes to start the 18-month construction late this year. The site is in the 46th Ward of Ald. James Cappleman, who said the project still needs to go through his zoning advisory committee. The developer already has modified the design, addressing traffic access and other concerns, after meetings with neighbors, Cappleman said. “This one looks really, really good,” he said of the proposal.

If there’s a hangup, Cappleman said it’s in the city’s planning department. He said the agency raised questions about the building’s mix of materials that might not hold up to Chicago winters. A department spokesman said only that the building’s design is under review.

Allowing for winter shouldn’t be too much for a guy from Detroit who knows renters need space for out-of-season duds.

A rendering of Jonathan Holtzman’s proposed building at 3636 N. Lake Shore Drive.
A rendering of Jonathan Holtzman’s proposed building at 3636 N. Lake Shore Drive.
BKV Group