Chicago Or Dubai?

Any architecture buff can tell you about the historical firsts for the city of Chicago. The “Chicago School” of architecture included famous buildings like the Monadnock building, one of the tallest masonry structures in the country, and the Auditorium Theater.

In the popular imagination the Sears Tower, which reigned as the tallest building in the world, and the John Hancock building, with its “X” style external beams, are iconic to the city. The Aon Building, formerly the Amoco Building, is a 90 plus story white classical tower, and the Smurfit-Stone building, with its angular (not quite matching) slanted glass roof.

In recent years, however, Chicago has been passed by other cities around the world. Dubai, famously, has the tallest building in the world under construction, and China (and Taiwan) have some of the highest and most adventuresome towers. Don’t forget Las Vegas, where the real meets the surreal, with the Paris (copy of the Eiffel Tower), the highest roller coaster in the world, and the Luxor (pyramid with spotlight).

But all is not lost… Chicago is currently undergoing a massive construction boom of tall and conspicuous buildings. In this photo you can see the moon over the cranes on Trump Tower, a 96 story concrete structure under construction (a smaller building is under construction in the foreground). From a friend’s window I can see the land being cleared for the Chicago Spire, a 150 story condominium to be marketed to the rich and famous from around the world. The Waterview Tower is an 89 story hotel for the Shangri-La with condominiums, rising on Clark Street. Each of these buildings will be a prominent addition to the Chicago skyline for years to come, whether or not they ultimately are an economic success (everyone wonders how many high-end buyers are available in Chicago to purchase these units, and the developer could end up in trouble; yet these buildings will live on in the skyline for decades to come).

If you are interested in architecture I highly recommend Emporis which is a site that shows photos of buildings under construction by city along with proposed buildings and buildings that were proposed but never built. I particularly like the buildings that never happened in River North, such as “Wolf Point”, a 142 story sky scraper proposed near the site of the current East Bank Club near Orleans Avenue.

In addition to all these buildings are myriad high rise buildings in the 20-70 story range which are being built all over Chicago. The capital that is being deployed to fund this construction is immense, and cranes are all across the skyline. As noted above, it isn’t necessarily clear that this will all end well for the developers, but as residents we will have a first class skyline for years to come (even through the inevitable recession).

30 thoughts on “Chicago Or Dubai?”

  1. “The Aon Building, formerly the Amoco Building”

    That will always be the Standard Oil Building a/k/a Big Stan a/k/a Rocky’s Last Erection.

    The building boom going on here IS pretty amazing. I was on the 66th floor of the Sears Tower looking south the other day, not even toward downtown — I counted twelve construction cranes. There is a big expanse of dirt between Congress and Roosevelt that is going to be turned into some kind of huge mixed use development. There is a major condo building going up at Franklin and Van Buren. If they get more housing over on that side of the Loop, the whole neighborhood will improve — more restaurants, more foot traffic, much like the the area northeast side of the Loop has changed.

  2. When I began as a first year at the U of C, in 1965, the Prudential building was the tallest building in Chicago, indeed in the whole Great Lakes Region. It still faces Grant Park from Randolph Street Just to the west of the “Aon Building”, but it is completely overshadowed.

  3. I am simply amazed that these projects can move forward in a place like Chicago where the graft and corrpution are legendary. I talk to people who have small businesses in Chicago that say the business environment for them is toxic. I wonder if Daley just tells everybody to get the hell out of the way for these big developments since they obviously bring jobs in the short term and BIG tax $$ in the long term.

  4. Dan,

    You have it all wrong. The very reason that these projects take in Chicago is because of the corruption. In what other city in America, can the mayor decide in the dead of night bulldoze the runways of a regional airport? It’s awesome! Stuff gets done in Chicago that would take a normal city years of public input and whining from special interests.
    I love Chicago. If my city could be as impressive, livable and beautiful as Chicago, let the corruption begin. I live in Denver, and we lost the relocation of Boeing to Chicago, so the business climate can’t be too bad.

  5. Oclarki,

    The problem with the Chicago approach is that the people who benefited from the airport, which was a lot of people, got screwed. Now Chicago’s lakefront park is a few percent bigger and the Mayor’s vanity is satisfied, but the City is worse off. I think this was a poor tradeoff, but the decision was made in such an arbitrary way that serious cost/benefit analysis was not done (nor will it be done on the part of the City govt). The City of Chicago has been slowly losing population for a long time. Perhaps poor government is part of the cause? Denver, at least, has been growing.

  6. Jonathan,

    For me I think the absurdity of the situation is what I find so compelling. I went to college in Chicago, and visit once or twice a year. It feels like my second home. Whenever I come back home to Denver I get a little down on it because in so many ways it tries to be a world class city, but it can’t get over the hump. For most of the 90’s the city became a poster child for poorly planned urban sprawl.
    Things seem to be getting better, with the completion of the light rail, there has been an increased emphasis on the new urbanism, densification and infill. Right now there are three 50 story buildings being started downtown. Not having to pay taxes or run a business in Chicago probably gives me a distorted picture of the true costs of the corruption and graft.
    Still, of all the cities I’ve ever been to, the city that works, the city that Sullivan wrote “Chicago is young, clumsy, foolish, its architectural sins are unstable, captious and fleeting; it can pull itself down and rebuild itself in a generation” It really is an incredible place.

  7. Oclarki – “Not having to pay taxes or run a business in Chicago probably gives me a distorted picture of the true costs of the corruption and graft.”

    You wrote my reply for me.

  8. “… the deision was made in such an arbitrary way that serious cost/benefit analysis was not done …”

    Daley — both of them — is/are like Lee Kwan Yew. The alternative to autocracy is not a sane, orderly deliberative democracy. The alternative is factional strife, tribal conflict, and the exodus of any productive life to more appealing locales. Just look at the city council and you realize, if Daley were not an autocrat these people would have no adult supervision and people like Dorothy Tillman or Fred Roti would actually have some control of the whole place. What a shuddersome thought.

    What Daley did to Meigs was outrageous. On the other hand, Meigs only had a small constituency, the elimination of the airport did not do that much damage, it was not even a blip economically, and it send a message to the various factions that the 800 lb. gorilla can strike without warning, the gorilla can hurt you if it wants to, and will. In this town, sending that message from time to time is necessary.

    Chicago only makes sense if you see it as a dictatorship with a facade of democracy.

    Apres Daley, la deluge.

  9. This is just the solution for Iraq. Daley could square those folks away big time! Nice wrought iron fences around everyones huts, lanscaping Baghdad’s promenades seasonally, and if the local mosque gives you any trouble, raze it! Bremer and the CPA were such pikers, we needed a well oiled machine that only a Chicago mayor could administer.

    On a serious note, what happened to those folks in DuPage county who lived in the neighbeorhood that had hangars instead of garages, are they riding the Metra from St Charles now?

  10. Oclarki,

    “Poorly planned urban sprawl” = people flocking to the area to buy property with their own money, expand the tax base, provide new goods and services and fund the grandiose schemes of politicians, urban planners and other parasites.

    “Light rail” etc. = tax-funded boondoggles that drive up costs for businesses and productive individuals, and make a city a less attractive place to live and do business.

    Someone has to pay for the boondoggles. City governments have two choices: 1) make local businesses and productive citizens pay for the grandiose schemes, and thereby discourage individuals and businesses from staying in or relocating to the area, or 2) keep spending, taxes and bureaucratic hassles low to encourage individuals and businesses to stay in or relocate to the area. Chicago follows plan 1, not as much as some cities do but enough to be decreasingly competitive.

  11. Lex,

    Daley is better than the alternatives, and is keeping the place from falling apart, but in comparison to a well-run city Chicago is pretty bad. He ain’t no Lee Kwan Yew. Lee actually made Singapore attractive to business; Daley, at best, keeps the idiots at bay, and at worst (Meigs) is destructive. (And if you think destroying Meigs didn’t cost much you are kidding yourself.) Chicago has stagnant population while places like Phoenix and even Denver are gaining. Nice architecture and an obsolete industrial reputation aren’t enough to make a city an attractive business venue. And what happens when Daley retires? Or if he gets sick? I wouldn’t bet my business on his continued health.

  12. My friend Carl from Chicago will attest that of the enormous amount of tax he pays the only real services that are provided in return are twofold. Garbage removal (most of the time) and the police (corrupt as they are) keeping some semblance of order. I too fear for the place post Daley.

    I pay insane taxes here in Wisconsin, but at least I get something back, such as a school that I could actually send my kid to and not feel too bad about it.

  13. There is no comparison between Chicago — a nineteenth century, Midwestern, blue collar, rust-belt town — and Phoenix and Denver. Chicago is the only town still standing among its peers — it is in much better shape than Cincinnati or Detroit (God help us) or St. Louis, though I hear good things about Pittsburgh. Those Sun Best cities were built after the War, and could expand into empty countryside. Chicago had a lot of 19th century “legacy systems” which it has made the most of.

    I don’t think any of these other towns are tourist destinations, which Chicago has amazingly become. I just went to lunch at the restaurant on the ground floor of the Board of Trade (good cole slaw), and the streets outside are packed with tourists. The city really is going through some kind of renaissance.

    I don’t think closing Meigs hurt the city. I didn’t like it or approve of it, but it didn’t have much impact.

    What happens when Daley finally dies at his desk is anyone’s guess and everyone’s nightmare.

  14. Why would anyone who doesn’t already have ties to Chicago start a business there? So many places have lower costs and better infrastructure. Like it or not, Chicago competes with those places.

    Removing a downtown airfield that served businesses, corporate headquarters and the convention center has to be costly. It wasn’t tourists who kept Meigs in business.

  15. Why did Boeing move to Chicago then? Quality of life is much higher in Seattle or Denver, so there must be something positive about doing business in Chicago.

  16. Quality of life is pretty good in Chicago. Boeing executives probably live in a nice ‘burb, take the train to work, so they get a nice house and good schools plus they get a nice downtown setting for work. You can do a lot worse.

    Tatyana, I cannot speak for Denver, but Chicago is very much worth visiting.

  17. Boeing is a mature company. The City of Chicago and State of Illinois screwed their own taxpayers to bribe Boeing into relocating to Chicago. Not a great example of an attractive biz environment in Chicago, since this kind of big-business welfare raises costs for everyone else.

    Most jobs are created by small, growing companies. These companies’ key workers are mostly younger people, many of them with small children. They aren’t going to live on the North Shore, because they can’t afford to. They aren’t going to live in downtown Chicago or the Near North, because they can’t afford to, and even if they can, the schools are lousy. The small companies can either locate in the far suburbs to be near their employees, or the employees can live in the far suburbs and have long commutes. Neither alternative is attractive as compared to locating in an area like Phoenix or Salt Lake City or Boise or Denver, that offers a much better deal on housing and quality of life and taxes for young companies and young employees.

    BTW, Chicago only offers good quality of life if you are indifferent to bad weather. In my experience, people who stay in Chicago either have family or job ties to the area or are indifferent to the outdoors. If you live in a place like Denver and someone from Chicago tells you that Chicago has a high quality of life, don’t take him at his word. Instead, spend some time in Chicago during the winter and see for yourself what it’s like.

  18. Weather, schmeather. I grew up in Massachusetts. It’s supposed to be cold in the winter. It is hot weather I don’t like. I suppose there are a lot of people like me. Chicagoans who want to stay fit go to the gym in the winter. There is this great new invention called central heating.

    You speak as someone who left Chicago for reasons you consider good. I can tell you that I am doing job interviews for my firm with people who are eager to move here from all points of the compass.

    You keep asserting that there are no jobs being created in Chicago, but I don’t think that is correct. What is your basis for saying that? Statistics? The major new buildings going up everywhere seem to have businesses in them.

    Chicago’s problem is its unproductive and excessively criminal ethno-cultural “communities”. No middle class person — white or black or hispanic — is going to put their kids in school with those kids. So yuppies who love the city leave when their kids start going to school. That is the whole problem with Chicago. It cannot keep productive people with families within the city limits. That is not a problem with a solution, though getting rid of the high rise public housing has helped.

  19. I didn’t realize that Chicago was my home until I left for Houston. In Houston I realized what I missed about Chicago – the fact that there were local neighborhoods that I could get around in without a car, by taxi, “L”, or even by walking. Living in River North it is packed with restaurants, good transportation, and things to see.

    If you want to live in a big city with this type of lifestyle, there are only a few choices in the US – New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington DC. Others might make the cut but it really depends on whether they were built for transport and walking and compact enough.

    As far as business environment and government competence, that is grist for a hundred more posts. Strangely enough I agree with all the comments as diverse as they are – Chicago has major problems, but major strengths, as well, as the booming skyline can attest.

  20. How odd. How perfectly odd and fun to read. Odd, because I just moved back to Chicago and spent the past few days walking around looking at the old skyscrapers, the stuff from the Chicago School and the 1920s Deco, Gothic, etc, styles I love. Fretting about the new glass towers – not because I dislike them, aesthetically, but because I was feeling weirdly sad about what may get knocked down to put up said glassy towers. I guess most of the stuff that I love from that period is a designated Historical Landmark, ’cause the rest of it was knocked down in the 70s. Still, older buildings are always vulnerable, aren’t they?

    I like the idea of the city growing and pushing upwards – the chance to live down-town that all the new construction affords, the fact that the city lives’ instead of becoming a ghost-town that empties out at night toward the suburbs or a museum piece for the wealthy. Still, it’s a strange feeling I’m having – loving the very American-y movement and feel of building, building, building boom, but worrying a bit about the beautiful ephemeral things that, oddly, are made of tons of steel and stone.

    When do you suppose we will tire of the current style in skyscrapers? I wonder what the next layer of the city will look like……I don’t suppose we’ll see terra cotta and bronze and shapes and flowers and detail like that again.

  21. Oh, and Lex is correct, I think. It’s the standard story about today’s cities. If you don’t feel safe, or don’t feel good about sending your kids to the local school, you are not going to live in the city. For cities to live, be alive with familes and business and community, people have to actually want to live in them – for more than just a few years of youth or empty-nesting. Perhaps some of the money being spent on attracting the Olympics should be spent on, well, I dunno. I guess, I don’t really know how to make a place like Chicago live more than it does. Anyway. It’s a spectacular place.

  22. “Perhaps some of the money being spent on attracting the Olympics should be spent on, well, I dunno.” There is nothing money can do. There is basically a string of large, third world-type ghettos plunked down in parts of Chicago. People with resources (of all colors) will not expose their children or families to it. So they leave. This is a condition which has to be lived with, not a problem with a solution. Or if there is a solution, it is one that will take generations. In the meantime, the city goes on, despite these problems, that would be enough to destroy most places.

  23. Sorry for OT;
    I can’t get to your blog – apparently the sentinels think I did register in the past and they don’t recognise me now (but I didn’t). And there is no button to reset.

    So – you refinished your parquet in Boston and then you left your new apartment for Chicago? Chicago must be real magnet…

  24. Lexington Green: Yes, the city does go on. Corners of it are real heart-breakers, though. Although heart-break is entirely too soft a term for it.

    Tatyana: I sent you an e-mail! I hope you received it; the old blog is hibernating for the time being and nothings been posted for months.

  25. I’m late to this thread, but if anyone is still looking.

    Chicago is indeed slowly shrinking in terms of total population, however the downtown core is growing, as are key inner neighborhoods. The near South Side is undergoing a lot of change and this change will continue, hugging the shore. If you take the fire into account the development of Chicago is very young in terms of cities. If you look at much older cities, you’ll see they tend to grow into ‘rings’ of (for lack of better terms) rich, poor, rich poor growing outward. What is happening to Chicago is the slow Manhattenization of it’s inner downtown. From my balcony in the far South Loop (think 16th and State) I can see atleast a half dozen new high-rises that didn’t exist when I moved to the neighborhood 3 years ago, along with over 500,000 square feet of retail, including a Target (the largest Target actually) and a Whole Foods that just opened [Roosevelt and Canal]).
    It terms of business, it is really easy to start a business in Chicago. From my experience in Real Estate, working with the Chicago beauracracy is really not bad. Recent experiences with suburban governments and my memory of working in the Bay Area have given me a real appreciation of the ‘lets make it work’ attitude of the Chicago city government. Yes, there is corruption, but it exists mostly within the government and with private companies with which it directly contracts. However the city does intrude on you in other ways. There are several hidden taxes in the form of ‘licenses’ as well as a thousand other ways in which they get you. After my first year here I started telling people that when you do business in Chicago you must always remember that your biggest competitor is the City of Chicago.
    I cannot speak for the schools with as much as Lex can for I have no children, yet. The public Elementary near me here in the South Loop is highly regarded, but the only public high school nearby worth any mention is Jones and it is a magnate school (and one ruled by self-rightous multi-culturalism).
    I like living in the neighborhood in which I live because it is in flux and the change interest me (which is in part why I got into real estate development). I envy Carl’s neighborhood for all it’s bustle and activity, but it’s coming to mine. Chicago’s history has been defined by neighborhoods that rise and fall and rise and fall.

  26. Many of the those displaced by the improvements on the near south side moved further south into the southern Cook County suburbs. Those southern suburbs do not have the deep pockets of the city and are doomed to become economic backwaters. What you are seeing maybe the start of a permanent division of the metro area into a dynamic northern area and stagnant south.

    The metro area encompasses everything from Milwaukee to South Bend. A strong core city makes the metropolis more attractive, but how do the smaller communities deal with the changes?

  27. I agree, there is a ring of poorer or declining suburbs sandwiched between the city proper and more prosperous suburbs that are going to struggle to come up with income to keep up with infrastructure and deal with problems that were once only thought of as ‘inner-city’ problems. I think older cities, such as Paris provide us with a template of what NOT to follow, but there is now clear template for what should be done. The municipalities that have interstates or other transport nodes will find a way to benefit from them. More state aid SHOULD be directed toward them, but the big black hole of Chicago may make that difficult. Finally, a regional governmental coalition similar to what exist in the Bay Area should be formed (and hopefully act as a counter-weight to the Chicago govt. and Cook county govt [which is necessarily Chicago-centric]).
    In the current state, poor government and cronyism will become especially disasterous, I’m think Harvey, IL as a model of that particular plight.

  28. I might add that Congressman Jesse Jackson, whom I’m not a fan of, has done good work addressing the issues of governance in this area.

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