In a neighborhood better known for bow trusses than golden arches, McDonald’s planted its flag firmly in West Town yesterday. The groundbreaking ceremony for the world’s second-largest fast food chain came amid the squeals and bangs of construction, already underway, for the new headquarters building at 1058 West Washington Street, the former location of HARPO Studios.
The return of McDonald’s to Chicago is the second-biggest thing to happen to the neighborhood in the last decade, following the opening of Google’s midwest head office down the street in the 1K Fulton building. It symbolizes the continuing transformation of the area immediately west of the Kennedy Expressway from small factories and food service industries to corporate coziness amid the timber lofts.
But the change doesn’t come without growing pains. Although the arrival of McDonald’s is being hailed as an environmental win because it means thousands fewer cars traveling to a suburban parking lot each day, in spite of the claims of politicians and real estate agents, this area is still underserved when it comes to transit.
In short, the new McDonald’s location suffers from the old “last mile” problem that vexes so many industries these days. Sure, you can move a trainload of people into Ogilvie Station or Union Station, but then you’re still ten blocks away. Which means a transfer to a #20 bus, or a ride on the CTA Green/Pink line to get you within two blocks of your fancy new McOffice. Neither option is as frequent, clean, or reliable as it should be.
So for the grand or so people expected to work in the new building, living nearby becomes attractive; especially on a cold winter’s night when the snow gets deep. Real estate developers will be happy to put up the new residential towers required for these employees, plus the accompanying hotel towers needed for all the salespeople re-tuning their fryolators for downtown Chicago. But they will not be welcomed by those already in the neighborhood, happy with their bow trusses and unpredictable sidewalks in the urban frontier. Expect West Town community meetings to get louder, angrier, and possibly spit-ier than ever before.
To be sure, the arrival of Ronald, Grimace, Mayor McCheese, and the Hamburglar is a wonderful thing for the near-downtown area. It will turn many a surface parking lot into something greater; fill empty retail spaces with Dunkin’ Donuts, Subways, and currency exchanges; and bring a vibrancy back to the area that hasn’t been known since the first meat was packed on Fulton Market.
But change won’t be easy. Politicians and urban planners will talk a lot about grand schemes to ease the transition. But in the end, the continuing transformation of West Town is a lot like puberty. Awkward. Painful. Confusing. And there’s nothing you can do about it other than patch the cracks with Clearasil and wait for it to be over.