By Monica Kass Rogers
“The last thing any of us wants is to see this neighborhood Disney-fied”
Riding the elevator to the top of developer Jeff Shapack’s almost-finished high-rise at the corner of Halsted and Lake, I’m fussing with the Velcro on the front of my neon yellow construction vest. The lift-operator, who looks uncannily like former mayor Richard M. Daley, has just confided that he’s afraid of heights. Somewhere between levels twelve and twenty-three—six floors shy of the top—Shapack quietly says, “This is the tallest building I’ve done yet.”
Standing in the open air looking out at the booming Fulton Market Innovation District that stretches from Halsted to Ogden below us, the Shapack Partners, Sterling Bay and other developer-owned vacant lots stand out, white blanks among the rubble and splintered timbers of demolition, as do signage-wrapped new construction sites and just-finished restaurants with so-new-it-sparkles HVAC and ductwork.
Randolph runs along the southern edge of the scene. Elevated-train-topped Lake Street is in the middle and Fulton Market sits to the north. Right now, each thoroughfare is lined with the mix of meatpackers, light industry, grunge and gleam that defines the city’s last remaining market district, which is now also its hottest restaurant neighborhood. Next year, there will be another dozen restaurants and bars down there, plus retail, new residences and hotels.
As for the industry and grunge? Says Shapack: “The last thing any of us wants is to see this neighborhood Disney-fied.” The “any of us” Shapack refers to—developers and restaurateurs, meatpackers and wholesalers, politicians and planners—have all been racing to keep up with unprecedented change without losing the essence of a neighborhood they love.
“Taking it day-by-day”
Over the last three years, this vaguely trapezoidal 217-acre chunk of the West Loop has been rocketing through transitions. The neighborhood officially got a new name—the Fulton Market District—and an influx of best-in-U.S. restaurants, a Soho House hotel and the local headquarters for Google. City planners worked hard to protect and preserve some of the look and feel of the neighborhood by designating a section of it the city’s fifty-sixth landmark district, at the same time encouraging office and tech growth by creating the Fulton Market Innovation District that surrounds and encompasses the area. Century-old meatpacking and food wholesale companies that gave the area its character were nnught in the whirlwind, with business owners debating whether to stay in the antiquated buildings they owned or to sell the properties to speculative developers for astounding prices—and, then, grow their businesses elsewhere.
“This community is constantly evolving,” says Alderman Walter Burnett, 27th Ward. “We try to deal with concerns day-by-day because things are changing day-by-day. Somebody has a huge concern and sells their property. And then another business moves in and has a different concern. So we are just taking it a day at a time.”
Depending on perspective, the players in this drama have been vilified and lauded, praised and condemned. There has been much up and down, anger and elation and lots and lots of money changing hands.
“None of us expected this to happen so fast”
“None of us expected this to happen so fast,” says Joe Maffei, owner of Grant Park Packing, putting on a clean white jacket to pose with the pigs that earned him the title Pork King of Chicago. In the photos I snap, he looks proud, if a little tired. Sitting in his office later, a portrait of the Last Supper on one wall, and a picture of a much younger Maffei on the other, he tells me that after over forty years in the business, Lake Street will see the last of Grant Park Packing in 2016. He won’t say how much he’ll get for the sale of his property, but other packers have received twenty million or more. Contracts for his buildings are pending, and the decision whether to relocate to Franklin Park where his son runs a business, or to move to a location his daughter is scouting, has yet to be determined. “Part of me just wants to shut down, retire and get it over with,” says Maffei. “But my daughter wants to carry on the business. I hope she can pull it off. Progress is to keep going, and hope that the best will go with you.”
Melissa Otte, fourth-generation owner of Maloney, Cunningham & DeVic, an egg, butter and cheese distributor, is also feeling in limbo. For years, Otte was an outspoken advocate for distributors and meatpackers hoping to stay in the area. Now, even she is thinking of leaving. Celebrating her company’s one-hundredth anniversary this year, Otte says she fought so hard to stay because, “I had more skin in the game.” Now? “I’ve finally started looking at properties. I’ve looked at Jefferson Park, 77th and Ashland, Franklin Park…My hope is that I can relocate to an area where some of the complementary businesses are moving, too,” says Otte. “I’m just shocked that for all the years and jobs that we brought to the city, they’re not sad to see us go.”
“We have a new opportunity to thrive”
If 2015-16 is the meatpacker/wholesaler swan song, then refrigerated trucks are the swans. Shiny eighteen-wheelers glide up these streets starting at 2am every morning. East to west, south to north, they puff their pneumatic brakes and hover, waiting to queue up to cadres of white-coated, rubber booted workers using hand jacks to load and unload case-ready meats and poultry. It’s been this way for decades. It’s unlikely, however, that the scale of this choreographed routine will last much longer.
I meet Joe Ferrone, chief operating officer of the Economy Packing Company, on the street outside 939 West Fulton, one of the parcel of buildings the company just sold for a reported twenty-seven million dollars. He tells me his company has until March to relocate to its new warehouse at Pulaski and Lurie on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Down the block, some of Economy’s biggest competitors, Morreale and El Cubano, also have plans to go.
“We have all been working with old-fashioned and antiquated distribution systems here for a long time,” says Ferrone. “The fact is, at our current location, we were way beyond capacity. The buildings we were in were designed for maybe a thirty-million-dollar company and we are doing one-hundred million in sales. It was tough to work with that, but we persevered and now, we have a new opportunity to thrive in a high-volume modern distribution center where we’ll be able to take care of business faster, quicker and more efficiently.”
Ferrone expects the move will almost double the business putting Economy Packing Company in line to compete with global companies such as US Foods and Sysco.
The Publican had been a chicken slaughterhouse
It’s raining again. Pretty hard this time. Squinting through the wet, Jordan Mozer, founder and principal of Jordan Mozer & Associates, an architecture and design firm that relocated just blocks west of here a year ago, is peering up at building facades on Green Street. For the last hour and a half, he’s been pointing out building types and elements that the Department of Planning and Development has deemed “architecturally significant,” details that give the Fulton Market District its unique look, helping it receive the landmark designation that went into effect on September 24.
There’s corbelled and paneled brick, raised brick parapets, rows of projecting headers, jutting canopies. “You see that horizontal strip of limestone that runs between the brick there?” Mozer asks, as part of his explanation of what a stringcourse is. He directs my gaze to the corbelled brick near the top of another building and explains a façade-ectomy: the preservation of a street-facing façade while the rest of the building is demolished. Equally impressive? The 1893 Louis Sullivan building Mozer is working on at 310 North Peoria. Hired by developer David Crawford of D2 Realty Services to ready the building for restaurant and office tenants, Mozer has been busy removing unfortunate additions and restoring other elements, which is very important as this is one of the few remaining examples of Sullivan’s industrial buildings.
In 1850, when Chicago was still a town, the municipality built a market hall smack in the middle of Randolph—the reason it’s so wide. The hall didn’t survive but, unscathed by the Chicago fire of 1871, some of Chicago’s oldest buildings did.
In fact, dozens of buildings in this district represent our last ties to Chicago’s industrial-food past. Wholesale produce buildings on Randolph, for example, known as commission houses, went up in 1908, the city’s effort to replace “vice with vegetables” by tearing down the morphine and opium shacks that had spread west of the market in what was called Dopetown.
Other produce houses—such as the one commercial broker Joseph Gloria owns at 802-806 Randolph—go back further. Purchased from family members in 2008, Gloria’s property was built in 1879. It now houses Brendan Sodikoff’s Au Cheval, Heisler Hospitality’s Lone Wolf bar and space for another soon-to-come Heisler restaurant.
Farther north on Fulton Market, Armour, Swift and Morris—the biggest names in the twentieth century meatpacking industry—had operations at the corner of Green and Fulton.
Donnie Madia’s The Publican is in one of these 1887 buildings, but finding his way there took some time. Madia, co-owner of the One Off Hospitality Group, tells it this way: “East of the highway on Randolph, we had opened Blackbird in December 1997. [Wanting to expand further,] we negotiated a letter of intent in 1999 for Dino’s, a favorite meatpackers’ watering hole on Fulton Market—the space that now houses La Sirena Clandestina.” The Dino’s deal didn’t come to fruition, Madia recalls. “But on the walk back to Blackbird, Paul Kahan and I met Bob Kowalski who was in the midst of rehabbing his iconic block-long three-story building at 845 West Fulton. After a walk-through the building, we filed that interaction in the back of our minds.” 2003 saw the addition of Avec, next to Blackbird, and three years later? “We revisited 845 for the Publican location.”
Ask Madia about his favorite details in the 845 building that connect his restaurant to its roots and he gets very specific: “If you look at the second Douglas fir column in from the façade, where there had been a chicken slaughterhouse, they had a notch cut out of the column so that the walk-in door could open freely.”
“Keep the history and integrity of the neighborhood alive”
Like Madia, most restaurateurs coming in to this neighborhood appreciate and want to retain the architectural connection to the past and preserve the feel of the area.
Jason Freiman, Chris Haisma and Nick Podesta of Footman Hospitality, Madia’s neighbors to the west, operate The Betty. The history of the structure was part of the reason they were attracted to it. “We retained the entire storefront, as well as the huge, floor-to-ceiling timber beams,” says Freiman. “We are very supportive of Fulton Market’s historic landmark status because we think it’s important to keep the history and integrity of the neighborhood alive.”
So is Mario Ponce, managing partner of Bar Takito, which is right next to the gleaming new thirty-eight-million-dollar Morgan Green Line train station. “We advocate preservation. The West Loop and Fulton Market have a strong historical meaning to Chicago. It makes the area unique,” says Ponce, “and adds value to the guest’s experience.”
Phillip Walters, co-owner of B. Hospitality with John Ross, David Johnston and chef Chris Pandel, opened Formento’s Italian restaurant in a historic building on Randolph that had suffered a fire on the top two of its four floors. Rather than knock it down, developer Shapack restored the skin and bones of the building, which “basically allowed us,” says Walters, “to build a brand new building from the inside out, with the integrity of the original. So we have a new roof and a new foundation but on a classic brownstone that looks and feels as if it had always been here. Shapack is big on heritage and history and we’re pleased that he maintained that.”
“Hookers and guys…with shopping carts picking up pallets.”
Restaurants doing business in the Fulton Market District are most fascinated with the timeline of more-recent history that brought this district from virtual ghost town to burgeoning phenom.
The first wave of development happened in 1991 with the KDK restaurant group’s launch of Vivo and then Marché on Randolph. Tom Powers, formerly general manager and director at Marché and now launching a three-level wine and spirits bar on Randolph called The Lunatic, The Lover & The Poet, remembers.
“So I started on the street when I was twenty-four and it was dark and scary over there,” says Powers. “There were no medians, no light posts, no gardens and very few residential buildings. Plus a lot of hookers and guys walking around with shopping carts picking up pallets.”
One night Powers, who had just returned from France, walked into Vivo. “There at the back of the bar were three guys having an argument. Turns out it was Howard Davis, Jerry Kleiner and Dan Krasny. They were about to open a restaurant. I walked across the street with them and saw Marché before it was open.” Powers says it took a year before the business really took off, but frequent visits from Michael Jordan helped. “Jordan was the big catalyst,” says Powers. “He would come in for dinner after half the home games and it really exploded. We were doing five-hundred-to-six-hundred people a night.” Red Light followed shortly after Marché, in 1995. But the recession led to the last days of both restaurants.
As the KDK light went out, another came on when Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz of the Boka Restaurant Group launched The Girl and the Goat.
“When we first came here in 2009,” says Katz, “you could have shot a cannon down Randolph. It was a complete ghost town. Opening the Girl and the Goat was like a powder keg: it lit the fuse and everything down here changed. It’s one of the busiest restaurants in the entire country. And when that phenomenon happened, a lot of people took notice. Soho House came down, Brendan Sodikoff came down, and a lot of other like-minded restaurateurs followed.”
“This neighborhood was not set up to be what it’s becoming”
Moving forward, operators say they do have some concerns about neighborhood infrastructure, things like traffic patterns, parking, safe lighting and policing. “It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg thing right now,” says Walters. “This neighborhood was not set up to be what it’s becoming so it’s going to take a certain level of both private and public investment to make it happen, so that there’s three or four cops in the neighborhood, so that Green Street doesn’t have blackout sections where my servers are walking flush with cash after work and get mugged. That’s not the future for us.”
“We are desperately in need of lighting under the train on Lake Street,” agrees Madia. “Hopefully that will come soon.”
Alderman Burnett says the current talk has been about a traffic light at Morgan and Lake, and painted bike lanes. “I don’t want to say too much about traffic and infrastructure when I don’t know what the need is going to be in the future.” he says. “A lot of these newer businesses are actually asking for less parking because they are more adaptable to younger people who ride bikes and public transportation. So it’s a little bit up in the air until we see what all is coming in.”
“Things went from affordable for restaurateurs, to out of sight”
Restaurateurs and developers say their bigger worries are actually close to their dreams: Successful sales have driven property values ever higher. Rents that used to be in the thirty-dollar-per-square-foot range have doubled, which has operators questioning the neighborhood’s ability to remain accessible to small businesses, entrepreneurial restaurants and retailers.
“I’m thrilled that this neighborhood has grown into what we had always hoped it would be. But how fast it did scares me,” says Katz. “As both a real estate owner and a business owner, I worry that if real estate prices continue to skyrocket, the very people that helped make the neighborhood exactly what we wanted it to be will eventually be forced out of the neighborhood because they won’t be able to afford it.”
“Things went from affordable for restaurateurs to out of sight,” says Matt Eisler, owner at Heisler Hospitality, which leases space for Lone Wolf on Randolph. “So it’s a very real concern. While the rate increases weren’t egregious, our second lease for the space right next door to our first lease was considerably more expensive than our first, and it was signed just two years later.
“One of the big obstacles we had in initiating that lease,” says Eisler, “was competition from out-of-town groups that were driving the rents up to the point that they seemed to make no sense. For someone who is looking for a presence in Chicago and has money to burn, some of those groups would be willing to pay exorbitant rents.”
Fortunately for Eisler, landlord Gloria wasn’t interested in the out-of-state operator. “I’ve had national tenants and chain-type restaurants approach me, but because I’ve been in the neighborhood for so long,” says Gloria, “I definitely didn’t want to see that happen here. I wanted to stay with the independent spirit and operator. That fits this neighborhood much better.”
“We are probably the last little independent in this neighborhood,” says chef-owner John Manion, who leases space for La Sirena Clandestina across from Swift & Sons and Google. “When our lease is up in 2020, I doubt that we will be able to renew. It’s just too expensive for a small independent.”
[For more from Manion and others about how the neighborhood is changing and sometimes threatening current restaurateurs, check out a recent story by Lauren Knight: “Fulton Market Transformation: When Google Comes to Dinner.”]
“To attract more tourism, we need more retail”
Many worry that costs may make it hard to bring in retail that’s right for the neighborhood. “If we want to attract more tourism, we need to attract more retail,” says Madia. “I hope that developers do what they can to try to attract the daytime business of retail which will grow the neighborhood exponentially during the day not just night time, for restaurants,” says Madia. “Sure the restaurant scene is viable and the entertainment vibrant, but we need more walking traffic so guests will stay in the neighborhood, rent hotel rooms.”
“There is a need for more retail that would make this a more well-rounded neighborhood,” says Eisler, and not just “only an entertainment and dining destination.”
“The new Main Street of Chicago”
Despite fears, there is much promise, and people want to be a part of it.
“This is the new Main Street of Chicago. It’s SIM city,” says Walters.
“You’re literally watching a neighborhood being built here,” says Powers, “which is so exciting. It’s not River North. It’s not the Gold Coast. It’s unique, and we feel really blessed to be a part of that [and it] has evolved from being an outsider neighborhood into something that is the essence of the fabric of Chicago dining. This is where the greatest chef talent is. And this is where people want to be. It fits into their lives whether they’re working in the Loop or going to one of two-hundred-plus events at the United Center. People live here now and it’s only going to get better.”