Every real estate development is an act of faith. It’s a show of confidence in a location and in market demand, with money and ego on the line.
An ambitious project proposed for Fulton Market exhibits plenty of developer confidence, but there’s something deeper at work. The planned City Technology Center at 1101-25 W. Carroll Ave. places its bet squarely on modernization’s rapid pace and on Chicago’s role in future innovations.
Backers of the proposed 18-story building include intellectual property advisory firm Ocean Tomo and TechNexus, a source of funding and connections for startups. Their zoning attorney, Michael Ezgur, called the project a “Merchandise Mart of technology,” a description that’s apt but falls short.
“The whole building is essentially a living laboratory,” said James Malackowski, Ocean Tomo chairman and CEO. It’s where consumer products can be developed with new “smart” features, tested and launched into the world, carrying with them continued relevance for a city that gave birth to the Twinkie, the zipper and the modern skyscraper.
It would become a focal point of what the city in 2014 christened the Fulton Market Innovation District, now home to Google, Glassdoor and other tech firms.
On the building’s lower floors will be showrooms where wholesale buyers can check out the inventions — the Merchandise Mart part. The middle floors would be where the research and collaborating goes on, probably by workers of established firms looking to make headway on a project.
Malackowski said Ocean Tomo and TechNexus will move their downtown headquarters into the space, bringing along several young firms. “TechNexus already has to turn away people for space reasons. If the city gives us the zoning approval, this building will be built,” he said.
On the upper floors would be a 200-room hotel, where products can be tested and innovators can rest their weary heads. The zoning application promises parking for 282 cars and 100 bikes.
That’s a lot to put into an 18-story building. The design by Pappageorge Haymes Partners, one of Chicago’s most prominent firms, delineates the three different areas of the building and uses brick veneer and varied window shapes near the ground to blend in with the neighbors. The middle floors make up most of the building’s 534,000 square feet and seem to strain against the lot lines of the roughly half-block site.
Documents filed with the city showed that aside from Malackowski and TechNexus founders Fred Hoch and Terry Howerton, other investors include partners at construction advisers Cogent Management Group and entrepreneur and former state Sen. William Marovitz. The tech center would replace a one-story industrial building and parking on property owned by the Comforte family, with longtime holdings on the Near West Side. Ezgur said the family will sell the parcel if the investors get it rezoned.
Hoch, the former CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, did not return calls, but it’s worth noting he has written about Chicago’s need for a tech identity that doesn’t derive from Silicon Valley. He called it the Chicago School of Technology, which he said in a 2016 blog post, “emphasizes pragmatic, workmanlike practice, and a focus on customer collaboration and satisfaction over self-promotion.”
“We’re better workers than we are showmen, and we tend to be more concerned with getting it done than with telling you about it,” he added.
Along those lines, Malackowski said he hopes to “underpromise and overdeliver” with the new building. He said it should account for 1,200 permanent jobs. Malackowski would like to see appliance makers, audio-visual companies and exercise equipment makers connecting to make their products smarter. He said even the bathroom mirror can have high-tech enhancements.
Cogent partner Carl Groesbeck emphasized the building will be designed to have all systems, from the plumbing to the elevators, working at peak efficiency and adaptable as technology improves.
But first comes a zoning review. Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. is involved because Fulton Market is in his 27th Ward, and he said he’s awaiting recommendations about the project from neighborhood groups that reviewed it over the summer. “The idea of it I like. I would love to have more tech people working in the area. Many of them move to the area, and that helps the real estate market,” he said.
Burnett said city planners have reservations about the building’s size — not the height, but its girth. In a city that likes setbacks, the tech center may have to trim some of its midsection. The city’s Department of Planning and Development had no immediate comment.
I can’t wait for that “smart” bathroom mirror, as if that object’s brutal honesty weren’t enough.