In downtown Chicago, office conversions are being used to create affordable housing

New Life for LaSalle

In downtown Chicago, office conversions are being used to create affordable housing

As a residential conversion by SCB, 30 N. LaSalle would include an 11th floor terrace inserted into the 1975 office building designed by Thomas E. Stanley. (Courtesy SCB)

Last fall, Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) introduced the LaSalle Reimagined plan to revive the sleepy and pervasively vacant downtown LaSalle Street corridor. Its focus will be the conversion of office towers with an emphasis on affordability. A minimum of 30 percent of the units will be affordable for households that make 60 percent of the area median income or less, which is higher than the city’s baseline requirement of 20 percent affordability for any project asking for subsidies or zoning changes. Cindy Roubik, deputy commissioner at DPD, said upping this requirement was an “achievable” way to “[bring] standards up.”

In early May, the city rounded out the selection of five developer teams that will focus on five properties, most of which are pre–World War II historic buildings. They will be partially converted into apartments (from studios up to three-bedroom units) along a five-block stretch of LaSalle Street. All told, the plan would bring online approximately 1,600 new apartments—600 of them affordable.

30 N. LaSalle is the only nonhistoric building included in the plan. (Courtesy SCB)

As COVID-19 and remote work have emptied downtown office buildings, converting the most beleaguered, and often oldest, of these into residences has emerged as a seemingly intuitive solution that in reality is often filled with complex trade-offs involving floor plate depth and code calculations that will require the reformatting of yesterday’s comparatively primitive office towers for today’s heavily amenitized urban residences. This transition is being harnessed as a subsidized housing development tool, making the city a leader, according to Roubik. “Chicago is out in front of making sure that the conversions are more equitable,” she told AN.

The hope is to develop a true live-work district where there is currently almost no affordable housing, and that is accessible to all. Rafael Hernandez, principal of Blackwood Group, one of the developers selected for the LaSalle Reimagined slate, noted that “this part of the city has been untapped, to say the least.”

Eighty-five percent of real estate in the area is dedicated to office space, while 5 million square feet of that area is vacant. More than half of the city’s jobs are downtown, Roubik detailed, but “we don’t have that same number living in the downtown area.” Meanwhile, “we have all this space that’s available.” With the downtown population growing nearly 10 percent since 2020, Mike Reschke, CEO of The Prime Group, developer for two LaSalle Reimagined projects, says, “We’re not stimulating demand, we’re meeting demand.”

Priority is given to historic buildings, and these projects will rely heavily on low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC), historic tax credits (HTC), and public funding via the creation of a tax-increment financing (TIF) district. This public TIF funding ranges from just below a quarter to nearly half the budget in four of the proposals. With these public dollars, only one team went above the 30 percent floor for affordable units.

The programmatic and functional details of adaptive reuse make larger, newer buildings with wide floor plates less feasible for conversion. “The newer the office building, the deeper the floor plate,” said Jesper Dalskov, principal architect at Stantec’s Chicago office, which is working on a LaSalle Reimagined conversion of a 1911 building. These large floor plates make it harder to use all available floor space while still making sure units have access to an outside wall with an operable window, required by code in Chicago and most large cities. Conversely, thinner, older buildings with shallower floor plates have proportionally more exterior surface area. Their operable windows and the light and fresh air they transmit were necessary in an era before air conditioning and cheap, widespread artificial lighting.

Stantec’s work on 111 W. Monroe is perhaps the most complicated conversion for these reasons. It’s a complex of two buildings; the original was designed by Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, and an addition completed in 1958 was handled by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. To break up the thick floor plate of the duo, Stantec is digging out a 19-story light well at the western end of the 1911 building, where it abuts its neighbor. After carving out 4,000 square feet per floor, Stantec will add a courtyard at the base of the light well and a planted wall along its surface.

30 N. LaSalle’s developers hope that the conversion will move at a fast pace given existing building conditions. (Courtesy SCB)

Developed by The Prime Group and Capri, 111 W. Monroe will offer 349 residences for a total budget of $180 million. (The property will also include a 226-key hotel, which is financed separately from the LaSalle Reimagined plan.) The building is distinguished by its columned, double-height lobby and the amenity decks to be located midway up the building and on its roof.

The high-rise at 30 N. LaSalle, built in 1975 and to be redeveloped by Golub and American General Life Insurance, is the only nonhistoric building selected for conversion. Its 149 apartments across 14 floors will be separated by a 17-foot-ceiling amenity deck on the 11th floor featuring a cantilevered “projected porch terrace,” according to Steven Hubbard, associate principal at SCB, the conversion’s architect.

These apartments are located on the lower floors of the high-rise (upper floors will still be used for offices), where the building’s three-tiered elevator core takes up a lot of space, making the shallower footprint more usable. These lower floors are the “sweet spot” for apartments, Hubbard declared, “because most of the interior floor space that would not be usable as residential apartments is taken up by the mid- and high-rise zone office shafts.” The project’s $143 million budget includes an exterior landscape plan and the addition of operable windows.

Lee Golub, managing partner at Golub, said this project won’t pursue LIHTCs or HTCs, though Golub will apply for TIF funding. As a nonhistoric building, what it loses in vintage, Golub hopes it can make up for in “speed to market.” “We could actually get to market quicker than anybody because we’re not waiting on negotiating with tax credits and we don’t need landmark approval,” he shared.

The original design of 111 W. Monroe, which may prove to be the most complicated conversion in the plan. (Courtesy Stantec Architecture)

With 75 percent affordable units—more than double what’s required—and being the only project developed by a dedicated affordable housing developer, the proposal for 105 W. Adams by Hernandez’s Blackwood Group and Celadon Partners stands out from the rest. Both Blackwood and DesignBridge, the architects for the conversion, are minority-owned (Latinx) business enterprises, and this is their first job downtown.

Designed by Hubert and Daniel Burnham Jr., this regal and subtly detailed tower is H-shaped in plan, with a taller central core flanked by shorter perpendicular legs. It may be the best-looking building of the bunch, as well as the most severely distressed. At 20 percent occupancy, it is currently in receivership, and its terra-cotta exterior needs a thorough revitalization. The developers (Celadon specializes in affordable housing) are calling for a wide array of tax credits, subsidies, foundation grants, and privately raised charitable funds to fill out their $178 million budget across its 185 affordable and 62 market-rate units.

Hernandez said the team sees the affordable units as opportunities for “public [sector] employees, essential workers, hospitality employees, and entry-level [workers]” who work downtown but often can’t afford to live there. His project is the only one of the five offering both three-bedroom units and a grocery store in its retail base, key features for low-income families and rare in high-density central business districts. “Certain parts of the city should not be accessible only to a certain few,” says Hernandez.

Roubik acknowledges that with its deeper well of subsidy and support, 105 W. Adams will be a more complicated project, perhaps with a longer timeline, but she said the City is committed to locating lower-income housing near jobs. Even beyond the moral responsibility for a democratic city, there’s significant research about the economic benefits of making sure jobs and people are located in the same area. Severe “spatial mismatches” (as named by a 2020 Urban Institute study) harm employers if they cannot attract workers to jobs, and employees if the cost of a commute counterbalances the benefit of a job. Chicago specifically is marked by “wide disparities in job access,” according to the report, with many job seekers living on the South Side, farther from opportunities.

“There are a lot of lower-income workers who work in the Loop,” Roubik stated. “It’s a more resilient model to try to provide more housing options near where people work.”

SCB’s mixed-use plan seeks to offer street-facing amenities in addition to residential spaces. (Courtesy SCB)

Despite Celadon and Blackwoods’ approval for their project, other developers aren’t eager to push the 30 percent floor for affordable units. “The City’s requirement is 30 percent, and that’s all we’re gonna do,” Prime’s Reschke said. He called the Celadon and Blackwood project an “outlier proposal, which I don’t understand. We think a better ratio is 20 to 30 percent workforce housing units. If you slant it too much to all affordable [units], the building becomes more and feels more like a public housing project.”

In Chicago, you can say less than this to invoke the debacle of high-rise public housing towers like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes: Their combined 18,000 units were torn down after colossal failures of public policy, building maintenance, and, perhaps least of all, design. The mixed-income composition of LaSalle Reimagined and its legacy architecture located in a part of the city that’s not starved for capital means that potential mishaps won’t resemble those of the past. Still, a similar question remains at play: Do dense blocks of housing for low-income people deserve a significant, purpose-built presence in the city?

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist and critic focused on the intersection of design in architecture and landscape architecture and policy.