Incoming projects test Fulton Market’s mettle
The development plans are coming in fast and furious for the city’s busiest real estate market, raising questions about how much density the area can take.
Wrapping up his classic “Life on the Mississippi” in 1882, Mark Twain wrote of dropping in on Chicago with admiration and awe over its “fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities.” Chicago, he said, “is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”
Today, somebody who has been out of town a few years might have a similar reaction upon visiting. The downtown business core has busted its western seams and, along with residential growth, is pouring into the Fulton Market corridor and the broader Near West Side.
Google and McDonald’s pioneered the corporate moves that gave the area a coolness factor. The old produce market was ripe, shall we say, for redevelopment, with business owners in outmoded quarters deciding to cash out or build new space farther from downtown and from neighbors complaining about trucks and noise.
City Hall accommodated by landmarking part of Fulton Market, respecting its legacy while burnishing its urban chic and by zoning changes to direct where high-rises could go. Developers have embraced the change with glee.
Their proposed projects in the corridor are getting bigger and taller. Some even have phases. One building alone sometimes doesn’t cut it anymore. Over time, the growth pattern will raise issues about the area’s future and whether the activity is too much and at too high a price. Are residents looking at a future of clogged streets? Many probably didn’t think they were moving to a place trying to be like Streeterville.
The development pressure in Fulton Market can be seen in recent proposals. Here are a few:
• Sterling Bay, which launched the Fulton Market wave, has proposed a two-tower project that would be its biggest investment there. It would be at 1300 W. Carroll Ave., where Sterling Bay last year tore down an old Archer Daniels Midland grain mill and silos. It would be a mix of residences and offices, apportionment to come, with the maximums being about 970 homes and 770,000 square feet for companies. Zoning status: introduced.
• LG Development has its eyes on both sides of Lake Street between May Street and Racine Avenue where it wants 665 apartments in two buildings, the tallest being 28 stories. Zoning status: approved.
• Trammell Crow wants a 650,000-square-foot office building at 315 N. May St. and a residential tower at 1112 W. Carroll Ave., adjoining sites that would include a public park. Zoning status: approved.
• Busy Chicago-based investors Clayco and Shapack Partners want a 40-story tower with 275 residences and maybe offices and a hotel, too, at 170 N. Green St. It would replace the Bridgford Foods processing plant. Zoning status: introduced.
• Fulton Street Cos. could top all these in terms of volume. CEO Alex Najem said he is laying plans for what could be a multi-phase megadeal at 1200 W. Fulton St. Early discussions involve 500 apartments, 200 hotel rooms, offices geared to life sciences and a fitness center. Zoning status: Not applied for yet.
So far, community pushback on big projects has been limited. Working through groups such as Neighbors of West Loop and the West Loop Community Organization, people have worked not to kill projects but to modify them.
For example, they won concessions from a developer on the height of a residential tower at 900 W. Randolph St. Under construction now, it will top out at 43 stories, still making it the tallest building west of Halsted Street, a title it might not keep for long.
Andrew Mooney, a former Chicago planning commissioner, wrote a piece for Crain’s last month warning the Fulton Market rush needs to be reined in. “Let’s remember that the underlying traffic, transportation and utility infrastructure of the district is still pretty much as it was a hundred years ago,” he said.
Steven Vance, founder and CEO of the real estate data provider Chicago Cityscape and an urban planner, said city officials evaluate infrastructure needs as part of their multi-agency review that any zoning proposal gets. Vance, who commutes to co-working space in Fulton Market, said the pandemic’s affect on office occupancy has made it difficult to gauge how busy the area will seem in the near future.
Vance said the problem with urban growth is the transportation systems often don’t keep up. He said the CTA needs to add stops along the Green Line, and the city should plan for traffic flows that don’t bog down the buses. “The development is not the problem,” Vance said. “It’s a matter of keeping up with demands for access and mobility.”