Over the last ten years that this blog has been in publication, we’ve taken a lot of tours of a lot of apartment buildings in Chicago. From new skyscrapers to vintage renovations, we’ve seen a little bit of everything. And the thing we’ve notice in the last eight years or so is this — They kind of all look the same.
The developers of new buildings in Chicago seem to all use the same checklist of features, and increasingly the same checklist of ways to cut corners while still claiming their buildings offer a “luxury” experience.
The problem is that, through abuse and overuse, “luxury” has lost its meaning. It’s like “breaking news” or “exclusive” in TV news. Somehow the news is always breaking, and every interview is “exclusive” even if the same person is on three other stations.
That’s the state of “luxury” in Chicago’s apartment market. Fitness center promising that you don’t need a gym membership anymore? Check. Plunge pool marketed as a real pool? Check. “Concierge” that’s really just a guy sitting behind a desk hoping he doesn’t accidentally let a serial killer walk into the building because he couldn’t possibly know every resident’s face on his third day on the job? Check.
If you want a real doorman who will actually open the door for you, or kitchen fixtures that aren’t straight from an Ikea catalog, or some special experience you won’t find in another building, then your choices are to go condo, or to pick a seriously old building. Penny pinching long ago took the “lux” out of Chicago’s luxury apartment market.
Until now. One week from today, the first residents will move into Related Companies’ first apartment building in Chicago, 500 Lake Shore Drive.
The building was born in controversy. Occupying one of only five remaining vacant building plots on Lake Shore Drive in Downtown Chicago, a lot of people thought it should have a landmark design. After all, this is a building that more than nine million tourists will pass each summer, so it is a de facto architectural ambassador.
That makes sense on the surface, but Ann Thompson, architect and Senior Vice President of Related Midwest, disagrees. She notes that 500LSD doesn’t exist alone on the lakefront, and trying to outshine the real star of the show — Lake Point Tower (505 North Lake Shore Drive) would have been the wrong approach.
“I think what’s interesting about the design of this building is that while formalistically, it’s very straightforward in terms of the rectangle, where it sits relative to the buildings around it, it glows. Because you’ve got two buildings to both the north and the south that are stone or concrete, that are matte in nature. So it’s interesting to pick a simple shape, but with a really elegant facade, so that it does make it the jewel between the two.” She added, “I think it also provides a really interesting backdrop against Lake Point Tower. Because something with a lot of form and a lot of fuss to it may have competed in a bad way. It’s a weird balance between being contextual, but also being significant in this context.”
Curt Bailey, the President of development company Related Midwest, has a similar appreciation for the neighbors to the east. “The whole time we were doing this building, [Lake Point Tower] was always a reference point for me, in that I think it’s the most beautiful building in Chicago. We wanted to build a building that lived up to that legacy. Because if you go into that building today, it’s as beautiful as it was when it was built 40 years ago. There’s some sprucing up that you could do inside, but it’s just beautiful. There’s that circle where you park and you look up and you see the curve of the building, it’s so thought-out. That was kind of an inspirational building for us.”
Reverence or not, there are plenty of people who would rather Streeterville didn’t end up with yet another box-on-a-podium from architecture firm SCB. Mr. Bailey says a box was exactly what he was going for.
“What we really wanted to do with SCB is design a really elegant, clean glass box. Both on the main building and also with the parking structure. I think we’ve really achieved that. We went through moments when we thought, ‘Is this really going to work?’ Especially when the windows first started going up on the building, I think we all had concerns about whether it would be as great as we thought it would be. And then as it’s come together, we couldn’t be happier with the outcome. I think it’s just a beautiful building.”
Mr. Bailey notes that from the outset, the local NIMBY group wasn’t on board with the box, but in today’s financial environment, maximizing floorspace is paramount, and that means squares. “We worked hard with SOAR to get to a place where they felt good and we felt good. Our selection of SCB was a function of where we were in the market. Remember, back in 2010 when we started this, nobody was doing anything. It was very scary times for all of us in the real estate business. We had done a very successful project with 340 East Randolph with SCB and Lend-Lease. So we forged this collaborative effort. No one had a lot to do, so we said ‘Hey guys, let’s sit down. I don’t want to have the architect design the building and then another guy say “I can’t build that, it costs too much” and then you go back and you have this.’ We literally sat down with everybody there and designed a building that was both build-able and architecturally significant. So we’re very happy at the end of the day.”
Happiness turns to effervescence for Mr. Bailey when he is in his new lobby. Standing on a catwalk at the top of a floating staircase, Bailey tells how the lobby doesn’t merely play a supporting role in a building like this — it’s the star of the show.
“I really like this spot up here, and this was a designed spot, because you can really get a look at the size and scope of the lobby and, as well, see out here [Lake Michigan and the Lake Shore Drive traffic]. And this is how you can understand how we designed the building. Previously, this was a 350-unit, 1,600-square-foot average size, condo building. 60 stories. And it had parking for seven stories, and it ran stem-to-stern across the entire site. So there wasn’t this big green area out here. And you had a wall, seven stories, right here. So you kind of stuck your butt out to the world and said, ‘Hey, screw you, because we live way up at the top.’ It was a beautiful building. It was Perkins+Will-designed, and they did a really beautiful job. But it had a very small lobby out on Peshtigo [Court]. A very elegant, very small lobby just for those 350 people who would live in the building.
“When we redesigned this as a rental building that will have to advertise itself in perpetuity as a beautiful place to live, we wanted to have a real face out to here. So all of your decision makers who live in Lincoln Park and Lakeview and Evanston and all those places who drive down here every single day and stop [at the Grand Avenue traffic light] right here and stare at our building, should look into the most beautiful lobby in the city. And so that is why we designed it both in this spot, and of this size and scope and with these materials, and why we spent so much time thinking about what we did with this lobby.
“You see the size of the granite pieces in the floor — you won’t see that in any other residential lobby in Chicago. Only in some of the highest-end office buildings. It’s called a mud-set floor, which means that you add something in a lobby of this size somewhere around $300,000 in cost, but you can have much larger and more beautiful pieces of granite. So, everything from that to the highly lacquered wood on the walls, to this stone that we love that permeates a lot of areas here and out into the porte-cochère, as well.
“All of those things were done so that this place is spectacular both during the day and at night for all these decision-makers who are stopping. The guy in Lincoln Park who is getting kicked out of his house by his wife, who’s driving in every day is thinking to himself, ‘Where am I going to live? Oh! I can live there!’ That’s kind of the downside one. The upside one is the guy who’s expanding his business and he’s got to bring in a bunch of people to live here and he thinks, ‘Where should I put them up for the next year? They’ve got to move here fast. Oh, here’s this great rental building!’ We really wanted this to be a spectacular space.”
Mr. Bailey doesn’t understand the move away from doorstaff in Chicago, especially in so many so-called “luxury” buildings. Some developers we’ve spoken to recently vilify them with a ferocity usually reserved for political talk shows. Bailey understands that high-end customers expect high-end treatment, and a doorman is just one of those necessities.
When we visited the building, it was still being built. Yet there was still a doorman on duty, white gloves and all, muscling open a malfunctioning door for us and guiding us through the construction obstacles.
“It’s a level of service,” Bailey says, “When you arrive home, there is a white-gloved doorman out front. And there is a concierge standing behind the desk. Whereas generally when you go into a rental building [in Chicago], you’ll see a guy kind of sitting behind a deck who might say, ‘Hey, how ya’ doin’?’ That won’t ever happen here, because we don’t have seats behind the desk. So the concierge will be standing whenever he greets you or she greets you. And if you were to show up after a ski trip and you have all of your bags from O’Hare, you’d pull up in front and the doorman comes out and gets your cart and gets your luggage and you go park your car. He will meet you at your apartment door with your luggage.”
“We have not only a ‘concierge’ at the front desk, but also a true concierge in the building, so if you want to go a particular restaurant tonight, he’ll handle the reservations; he’ll get you tickets for whatever games you want to go to. We have a full suite of concierge services in the building.”
One of those above-and-beyond service touches available at 500 Lake Shore drive is a move-in coordinator. Lots of buildings in Chicago have people with this title, but usually all they do is reserve the freight elevator for you. 500LSD takes the moving process almost entire out of your hands — a critical amenity for busy people, and a wonderful luxury for the rest of us. Once you sign your lease, the move-in coordinator can arrange a moving company, hire packers and unpackers, schedule elevator times on both ends, set up all of your utilities, and ensure all of your stuff gets from your old place to your new place.
There’s even a person on staff who will hang your flat-screen television on the wall, and figure out how all of your audio-visual stuff works and hook it all up for you. In theory, you could go to a relative’s house or a hotel for a couple of days and let everything just happen while you relax. Bailey says, “We want to make this high-touch, and as easy as possible [for our residents]. So that’s another big point of differentiation.”
Another part of being high-touch is being ready for anything. Package receiving in most large buildings in Chicago is outsourced to the dry cleaning room people. At 500 Lake Shore Drive, it’s a little different. The service area is equipped with three industrial-sized refrigerators. So if someone unexpectedly sends you flowers, they don’t sit wilting on a counter in an office somewhere until three days later when your admirer asks if you enjoyed the bouquet.
If you’re like us, you’ve scheduled a Peapod delivery from an airport in Asia to arrive shortly after you get home. But then United keeps you sitting in Hong Kong for ten hours and you miss your connecting flight from Tokyo and you don’t get back to Chicago on time. At a Magellan building, those Peapod totes would either be sent back to the warehouse in Skokie, or (as happened to us) they sit in the hallway outside your door for three days while your milk slowly turns into cheese. Thanks to the battery of industrial refrigerators, that doesn’t happen at 500LSD.
If you really want to watch TV outside of your brand new home, Related has taken the usual luxury apartment theater room to the next level. The theater room isn’t arranged like a big comfy stadium. The big comfy chairs move and are in groups, just as they would if people who knew each other used them. Mr. Bailey says it’s a concept borrowed from his company’s apartment buildings in New York.
“Generally in these TV rooms, it’s arranged like a movie theater. You have rows of seats, and they look great. And you think, ‘What a great way to watch a movie!’ But how they function is vastly different. When you have a Super Bowl party, or you have a party for the Emmys or the Grammys, people don’t sit in those chairs. They generally stand in front of the screen and they congregate and they talk and they have drinks. They don’t all sit in rows and stare at the screen. So from our buildings in New York we brought this concept of free-form seating. The chairs all move around, and we have a bar, and we have two screens. We didn’t do projection screens, we did two huge real TVs, which we think is a nice touch.”
This means that your Oscar party can have Ryan Seacrest on one giant screen TV, and Joan Rivers on the other, while you’re mixing cocktails for your guests.
The bells and whistles abound, including in the elevators. They use a “port” system now being installed in office buildings around the city. When you arrive in the lobby, you use a touch screen to tell the elevator computer what floor you want to go to, and it tells you which elevator to stand in front of. It’s supposed to reduce waiting time by 40% during peak hours.
It can also be programmed to do more interesting things. Like create virtual private elevators for penthouse renters, so they never have to get in an elevator with other people. When you waive your RFID fob, the elevator knows who you are and where you live, and you never have to stop on the way up or down.
Another creative use — keeping residents away from each other. Not in the sense that Mr. Jones on 37 is a real jackwagon, so let’s isolate him from everyone else; or Marsha on 22 just broke up from Frank on 18, so it can be programmed to avoid any awkward moments alone together (though both of those are theoretically possible). A more practical use would be making sure someone who’s allergic to dogs doesn’t stop on a dog floor or have a dog owner (potentially with fido as a companion) join him in such a confined space.
It’s a nice touch in a building full of nice little touches. And those touches add up. Ms. Thompson says the team spent hours, sometimes days, discussing minutiae that residents will never consciously notice, but contribute to a palpable background-level of quality.
Ms. Thompson says, “We really have spent an enormous amount of time figuring out this building. Because a lot of buildings get built and they look great at first, but you go back in two years and you’re like, ‘Oof, that looks tired!’ We spent so much time thinking about how is it going to look in two years, and how it’s going to wear.”
Mr. Bailey points out a service door, camouflaged to match the rest of the short hallway. “Generally in any apartment or condo building in Chicago, you’d come in here and this would be a big white door stuck in the middle of all this stone. But this door being covered in the same stone, with the fit and finish and how all of that comes perfectly together and disappears is indicative of what we’re trying to do throughout this whole building.”
Mrs. Thompson concurs, “You can come up with this checklist of what every high-end luxury building has. But you can also design it in a way that is also very thoughtful so there is a level of design that comes with the checklist. It’s something that brings an intangible level of luxury that you just don’t get everywhere. For example, we have stainless steel jambs so you never have to see beat up veneer when you come through. It’s that level of attention to detail that I think we do better than anybody.”
The details are clearly visible in the public spaces, such as the library which has both large tables and several reading nooks, along with a see-through fireplace. The whole space is surrounded by a shell of lacquered wood.
This is my favorite, this wood,” says Mr. Bailey, “This oval piece that has no real purpose other than to look beautiful and be a great spot to sit and read a book.”
Ms. Thompson adds, “And you really think about how somebody wants to use this space. And sometimes being in a big open room isn’t where you want to be. You want to have space, but you also want to have some moments of intimacy. It would be easier to just leave it all open.”
Nearby is a gaming and television area, with a retro shuffleboard game, and several flat screen TVs anchoring various gathering areas. The TVs hang in rustic surrounds. Mr. Bailey identifies them as being made from reclaimed Indiana barn wood. “And how that fits contextually with a really modern building makes it a really cool spot. And then if you come in here, this is another spot that I love. The TV with the barn wood.”
The common space opens onto the outdoor space, which features a small lap pool. At the time we visited, it was still very much under construction. But Mr. Bailey clearly has a vision of it when it’s done.
“This is what we believe will be one of the great outdoor areas in the city. You have a very large hot tub, you have this beautiful pool right here. There will be cabanas with canvass that separates them, with seating areas.”
“There’s real lounge seating,” notes Ms. Thompson, “And you can reserve the space. And there’s sofa seating an a grilling space [inside the cabana] with stainless steel grill and sink. It’s a really thoughtfully programmed deck, so there are different ways you can use it.”
Bailey continues, “On Wednesday and Saturday nights when you have the [Navy Pier] fireworks going off right over your head, this is going to be a special place to be.”
With a pool comes a locker room/restroom combination. It’s clean and bright and echoy like all apartment building locker rooms, but Mr. Bailey is quick to point out the expensive cut stone tile work on the shower floors.
“I had just been in [another Chicago developer's] building at a Super Bowl party and I went into the bathroom and I saw white walls and stainless steel. And when I came back to the office on Monday, I said, ‘[our] bathrooms better not look like [another Chicago developer's]. Let’s spend some money in here!’ Because it’s important. It’s a difference. It’s like that door downstairs — You don’t think about it, but when someone comes on a tour and they see this and they look at the thought put into the lights and the mirrors and the wall coverings. These are differences that we think are important.”
Those differences extend to the gym, which in a building full of epic views, has really spectacular views of both the lake and the city.
Mr. Bailey calls it, “Another really proud moment for us,” especially the double-height glass. “One of the things you find when you build these building, much like at 340 East Randolph, is that these views that you don’t think are the big views, are the best views sometimes. This one, looking back into the city, especially at nighttime is one of the best views you’re ever going to see.
“This gym is designed by Equinox, which is a partner of ours. Related owns the majority portion of Equinox. We actually had this really great gym designed, and then we brought in Equinox and they made us spend another $100,000 on these mirrors, and wainscoting, and this floor is some kind of super-duper flooring. So this became a special space and we want it to be a place where you’ll love to work out.”
But for many people, the whole point of living on the lake is to take advantage of its trails and parks. And working out outside often comes with a furry companion. It’s a situation that 500LSD is more than ready to handle.
“We’re also selling a bunch of condo units in the South Loop,” says Mr. Bailey. “We took over 500 condo units in three buildings down there. So we did a study when we started building [500 North Lake Shore] and also started working down there, of people we thought might be residents here or might be purchasers down there. And of all the things that we asked them what they wanted in a building — and we asked them hundreds of questions — the number one thing they cared about by a mile was pets. Specifically dogs.
“So we did a building in New York called MiMa, designed by Arquitectonica at 42nd and 10th (MiMa means “Middle of Manhattan” — it’s actually Hell’s Kitchen), we did this thing that has been ridiculously successful called Dog City.
“It’s [a dedicated room with] everything from dog walking to dog grooming to feeding your dog. If you get caught out of town and you can’t get home in time to walk your dog, we’ll come to your unit, bring your dog down and walk him. If you’re delayed for an extended period of time, we’ll feed him. We’ll have vets who will come here and you can have veterinary appointments. And we also have boarding, again if you get caught out of town for a couple of days and you can’t get home, we’ll board your dog here for you.”
It’s a lot of features for a building that’s made up of apartments. Very often, apartment buildings are treated by their owners as the ugly cousin with the runny nose. Related doesn’t see it that way, in part because the real estate industry is going through a fundamental change. The economic downturn took a lot of the stigma out of renting, and many cities are seeing a surge in demand for downtown apartments, not only from young urban professionals, but from empty nesters, broken families, people looking for a second home, and those who left the hassles of city living only to discover that suburbia has its own set of hassles that may not be worth the effort.
Because of that, Mr. Bailey calls 500LSD “a legacy asset.”
“We’ll hold this forever. It’s the only rental building on North Lake Shore Drive until you get to 1400, so this is an important place to us. We wanted to build it to stand the test of time, and at the same time it made sense to make it a rental building.”
“It’s also a great opportunity to bring in a different kind of renter,” says Ms. Thompson, “It’s rental by choice. It’s a lifestyle.”
Mr. Bailey continues, “One of the types of renters that we think we’re going to capture here, that you generally don’t see in rental buildings, are the empty-nesters. The North Shore empty-nesters; the Hinsdale empty-nesters. The folks who come into the city a couple of times a month and are going to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and maybe renting a room at a hotel, and spending a lot of money on that. Now they’re thinking, ‘Why don’t we have a place?’ Or maybe the husband or wife work late some nights, and then they have this pied-à-terre. The same person who was our purchaser at 840 Lake Shore Drive and at 340 will now be a renter. We haven’t seen those people really take advantage of the rental market for two reasons — One, because they didn’t think of it, because the product was out there; and two, they were buyers before, but now in this market, they’re making some changes. As the rental market continues to evolve, we think this is going to be a big part of who rents in this building.”
Even though Mr. Bailey is aiming for the stars, in both tenants and in rents, please don’t call his building “luxury.”
“We spent a lot of time talking about that. ‘Luxury’ doesn’t mean anything anymore, so how do you describe it? In our marketing we’ve changed from ‘luxury’ to ‘sophisticated’ and other words.”
“It’s a graciousness of living,” chimes Ms. Thompson.
Mr. Bailey continues, “Here what we’ve tried to do is take lessons from New York and other parts of the country that we do buildings in. We have this great wealth of knowledge of L.A., Florida, New York and other markets. We take all the things we’ve learned and try to apply them here, but only where they’ll work, and not apply the ones that aren’t applicable to Chicago, that won’t make this a better building for Chicago. We don’t want to New York-ify the building, but we don’t want to lose lessons that we’ve learned.”
Has he learned things from his Chicago buildings that he’s using elsewhere?
“Clearly. We haven’t built rental here before, but we took lessons from other buildings we’ve built here and used them elsewhere.
“When a unit in 840 Lake Shore Drive trades at $1,000 a square foot in three days like it did a week ago, that says something about how well that building was thought out, how it was designed, and how it functions. It was built ten years ago and it still trades higher per-square-foot than anyplace else in the city. That’s a function of Ann and her team, and how we drive our architects, and our construction folks. All those people who built 840 are responsible for this building, too.”
More notes about 500 Lake Shore Drive
- All of the art in the building’s public spaces were commissioned just for that building.
- There are two Starbucks machines in the public area. Coffee costs a buck and the machines take credit cards. Other apartment buildings offer the same Starbucks machines with free coffee, but the idea behind charging a dollar is to ensure people place value on what they’re getting and so they’re not wasteful and don’t trash the place. (It happens — I’ve seen it in at least three buildings)
- The business center has 27″ Macintosh computers, not Windows boxes (If you think that’s an impediment to business, you’re not in the business world)
- Large party room available for rent
- Outside area called The Grove with eight-foot-tall trees and a fire pit
- Marble backsplashes in the kitchens
- High end cabinetry in the kitchens
- Dishwashers hidden behind wooden cabinetry
- Range hoods, faucets, sinks, shower heads, and other fixtures were custom designed for this building
- Every apartment has its own femtocell so that cell phone service is perfect throughout the building. Related spent two million dollars designing the system with AT&T and Verizon.
- Real shelving systems in the closets — no wire racks
- Medicine cabinets are six inches deep — large enough to even store toilet paper rolls
- Nine foot ceilings
- In our tests, even in empty apartments facing east on relatively low floors, there was very little noise intrusion from Lake Shore Drive