Bad Economy Good For South Loop Developer

AMLI Lofts drawing

When the economy ate itself in 2008, construction projects around the world came to a halt. Lofty plans were left on paper and stuck in drawers to wait for a “someday” when things might be better. But for one block in Chicago’s South Loop, stagnation created an opportunity.

The southwest corner of South Clark Street and West Polk Street is currently approved for a pair of 50-story residential towers with 1,000 homes plus a 1,000-space parking garage.  Back in 2008, it was called Avalon Clark.  It was a huge project, and one of many in the city stymied by the collapse of the financial system.

Avalon Clark diagram

Avalon Clark diagram

A couple of months ago, AMLI, the Chicago-based apartment developer/operator, took advantage of the circumstances and bought that parcel of land. It’s going to develop it into a lower-density project called AMLI Lofts (800 South Clark Street), since the high density plan simply isn’t going to happen.

For AMLI, there are plenty of benefits. It is able to add capacity (vacant apartments) in an area of Chicago that market strategists predict will soon see an influx of 20- and 30-somethings looking for apartments close to the city’s downtown core.

AMLI is able to develop the land without having to go through protracted zoning change hearings, since its development is modest enough to fit within the current DX-7 assignment. By contrast, the pair of 50-story towers needed special permission from the city to fill that block.

And by building a low-density apartment complex, AMLI preserves the coveted views and premium rents it gets from the adjacent AMLI 900 skyscraper. Replacing the surface parking lot with retail and green space also adds value to the tower down at 900. In the words of ALMI Residential president, Allan Sweet, “That stretch on Clark to Target is crummy, and we hate it at AMLI 900.”

So, what does AMLI propose for Clark and Polk? A surprisingly suburban-sized development of 398 apartments in two 11-story towers.

Both towers will be pushed back from Clark and Polk streets to improve the pedestrian experience, while at the same time hiding a small private parking garage and amenity deck.

AMLI Lofts layoutEven though it isn’t asking the city for any zoning changes, AMLI is still holding a series of community meetings about the project. The fifth such meeting was held not too long ago, and was like attending a community meeting in Bizarro-Chicago.

In most neighborhood meetings in Chicago, people clamor for lower density projects. In this one, the loud and the angry were pushing for more density. In most neighborhoods, people ask for fewer curb cuts to reduce car-pedestrian conflicts. In this one, people were asking for more curb cuts thinking that would make Clark Street more pedestrian-friendly. And in most parts of Chicago, people praise the elimination of surface parking lots. Here, people lost their minds at the notion of losing the superfluous spaces. Not only did they become loud, one became physically aggressive to the representatives from AMLI. It was just crazy.

As surprised as I was with the way people were lashing out, AMLI’s president seemed to expect it and was prepared with a number of experts in urban planning, architecture, construction, sustainability, traffic management, and even parking.

The first salvo was fired by someone who claimed under his breath to be an architect. He asserted that, “Daniel Burnham would be ashamed of the opportunity lost building this property so close to the city core.” He called it an under-utilization of prime real estate, lamenting that it would do little to increase the neighborhood’s daytime population or house small businesses.

Calling the ALMI project on this block an under utilization of the space is, of course, a matter of opinion. It was, however, pointed out that since no zoning change is sought, the DX-7 density that ALMI is filling, is exactly what City of Chicago planners have decided is appropriate for the block, and the 1,000 apartments and 1,000 cars concept of the past was the exception, not the ideal.

The same gadfly finds flaws with AMLI’s plan to eliminate curb cuts (driveways) along Clark Street, claiming that doing so will speed up traffic in the area. He suggests that fast traffic on a course parallel with pedestrians runs contrary to AMLI’s stated goal of making the area more friendly to walkers. Instead, he believes more driveways are needed to slow down Clark Street traffic, even if it means having hundreds of cars crossing in the paths of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Since this was the same person who brought up Daniel Burnham, ALMI’s architect, Dick Mann, chose to further the Burnham history lesson. He noted that Burnham was very involved in the design of Chicago’s premiere pedestrian street, Michigan Avenue, from Randolph Street all the way down to Roosevelt Road, and in that stretch there were deliberately few driveways allowed in order to facilitate pedestrian traffic.

Also on the topic of cars, it appears that the South Loop’s maturity from a car-friendly urban zone to a car-optional urban zone isn’t without its growing pains. People became absolutely livid when they found out that the AMLI parking garage would be for the exclusive use of AMLI residents, and that the surface parking lot being lost will not be made up elsewhere.

AMLI Lofts construction layoutWhen Sweet asserted that the area has an “over-abundance” of parking spaces, and stated that he had letters from both Standard Parking and Central Parking System backing him up, he was shouted down by the crowd, and called a liar by a local business owner.

Ever prepared, Sweet introduced a representative from Standard Parking. Standard made several counts of available spaces at the 10 parking lots closest to the intersection of Clark and Polk. Measuring weekdays at 10:00am and 1:00pm, which are considered peak parking times, it found there were never fewer vacant spaces at the ten parking lots than the number that would be lost by closing the Clark and Polk facility. That didn’t fly with the more angry members of the group who claimed they had made their own contrary counts, but failed to produce any numbers or evidence.

To be sure, this project is going forward. It requires no zoning permission from the city of Chicago, and since ALMI is half-owned by Morgan Stanley, it will be self-financed. But it’s an important step in illustrating the changing character of the South Loop.

The last real estate boom washed a tide of newcomers into the neighborhood who adapted and lived fairly well with the established urban pioneers. But the next bubble is going to bring a flood of newcomers that will quickly turn surface parking into skyscrapers and sleepy streets into thriving communities. It’s happened before, and will happen again. Change is inevitable, and in a city the size of Chicago, the past is as fleeting as a good skyline view.

Here are some details about the project:

North Tower

  • 1.68 acres
  • Height: 11 stories
  • Residences: 199
  • Retail space: 9,000 square feet
  • Parking: 140 spaces (0.7 spaces per unit)
  • Green space: 11,000 square feet (50% more than required)
  • Polk Street setback: 12 feet for retail, 17 feet for tower
  • Clark Street setback: five feet for retail, 10 feet for tower
  • Six-foot-wide green space between sidewalk and Polk Street

South Tower

  • 1.81 acres
  • Height: 11 stories
  • Residences: 199
  • Parking: 140 spaces (0.7 spaces per unit)
  • Green space: 13,700 square feet (90% more than required)
  • Clark Street setback: +3 feet from right of way, sidewalks 9-11 feet wide. Current sidewalk 6 feet wide on Clark, 7 feet on Polk.
  • Project size: 3.5 acres
  • Amenity deck with pool, barbecue, etc…

Current Planned Development (Avalon Clark):

  • Two 50-story buildings
  • One 7-story parking garage
  • Parking: 1,000 spaces

AMLI Lofts

  • Residences: 398
  • 60% less dense than Avalon Clark
  • Retail space: 9,000 square feet
  • Trying for LEED Silver rating
  • Trying to exceed LEED requirements by 17%
  • 75% of construction waste will be recycled (50% required by the city)
  • Built with materials with recycled content.
  • Built with locally sourced materials where possible.
  • Resident recycling program.
  • Individual climate controls.
  • One-story parking garage preserves views for many at Folio Square.
  • Architect took deliberate measure to de-canyonize the project to give it a neighborhood feel.  “This is not La Salle Street.”
  • Facade described as “technical” with pre-finished corrugated metal panels in square and rectangular shapes.  
  • Facade panels are pre-finished so they won’t fade or change color over time.
  • Rooftop sun deck
  • All vehicular access comes from West Ninth Street and West Polk Street.
  • Trying to draw people off of Roosevelt Road into the neighborhood.
  • National retail is going extremely well on Roosevelt Road, shows that there are opportunities for infill retail in the South Loop.
  • Retail setback at Clark and Polk intended for outdoor dining, if a restaurant moves in.
  • Expected to reduce traffic in the area because people can walk to downtown; there are many transit options; and pick-up, drop-off, and loading areas are on the property, not on the street.
  • Dog run
  • 18 month construction time.
Editor

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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