United Airline's move downtown leaves suburban land behind

The company's one-time corporate campus is still up for sale.

September 19, 2011

By Tony Arnold and Dan Weissmann

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(WBEZ/Tony Arnold)
The corporate campus of United Airlines in Elk Grove Township.

Anyone trying to sell a home these days has to have an iron stomach and a philosophical attitude. But if you think selling a house is hard, try unloading more than 60 acres. United Airlines has had a plot of land in the northwest suburbs on the market for two years,  even though it's prime property in Cook County, where that much space is hard to come by.

Imagine the advertisement: For sale: 66-acres of land. A million square feet of office space. Close to O'Hare Airport and major highway. Three thousand parking spaces. Loads of green space. Equipped with tennis courts and a pond with one of those little fountains in the middle. Open to redevelopment. And no municipal taxes.

Okay, that's not an actual real estate ad,  but it is a real piece of property. And the Cook County assessor's office says it's the biggest chunk of non-farm land available in Cook County.

The owner is United Airlines. It's been trying to find a buyer for its massive corporate open space and buildings for two years, as it's been relocating employees to Chicago. As the land sits unsold and pretty much unused, the site may be a cautionary tale about the changing nature of what corporations want.

SCHULER: These old campuses that have been built. I mean, people work differently today.

Fred Schuler is with the commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle. He's a guy who follows how businesses are organized.

SCHULER: They're working in more efficient layouts. They're going from one window office to one secretary to, you know, open, lots of light in a cubed environment. You know, much more communication.

United is a client of Schuler's firm and neither United nor Schuler wanted to talk directly about the sale. But Schuler was quick to point out that downtown relocation is not the only trend for companies.

ARNOLD: We're not writing the obituary on the corporate campus any time soon, then?
SCHULER: No, not at all. You know, I was just looking at a list of tenants in the market and the ones that are maybe moving from suburbs to downtown get a ton of publicity, but what happens is, corporations out in the suburbs are asking us to put them in a more efficient environment and cost-effective environment.

Schuler says transportation, parking, environmentally friendly settings are now the priorities when companies think about their work spaces. And offices are more compact than they used to be. As companies constrict, more space is available for lease.

Earlier this year, Jones Lang LaSalle calculated almost 17 percent of office space is vacant in downtown Chicago. In the suburbs, they found 25 percent of office space not occupied. And there could be more open space coming. Other companies with big suburban campuses are showing signs of itchy feet.

Motorola Solutions just expanded from its Schaumburg base to some new office space in the Loop. Sara Lee has reportedly thought about leaving Downers Grove. And Sears has also reportedly been thinking of leaving its 200-acre campus - and Illinois - altogether.

So in this climate of change, who might be seeing United's space as a real value? Well, if you're a land-locked village with little room to grow, 66 acres is an attractive chunk of land. Enter the Village of Mount Prospect. Bill Cooney is in charge of community development for the village, which rubs up against the United property but doesn't include it. Cooney says the village has wanted the land for decades and now has its shot at controlling what happens there.

COONEY: When I say control, I'm really talking more about if someone comes along and wants to propose a very large housing development or amusement park; something outside of the boundaries of what we're really looking for.

Cooney says he doesn't want those houses or amusement parks. But he would welcome a developer who'd bring in a shopping mall or other corporate venture. That way, if the village got the land it could collect the taxes from it. There's just one tiny, little issue. The land is just barely too big for Mount Prospect to simply absorb. Six acres too big. If it were  six acres smaller, Mount Prospect could just annex the land. But as it is, it has to reach an agreement with the next owner to make the land part of Mount Prospect.

Still, Cooney sees it as the village's big moment. But it's a waiting game.

COONEY: Since this property's been on the market, I've had very few calls on it. It's a combination of the cost and the size and primarily because of the economy.

That might be a note of warning for other towns with large corporate campuses. And while Mount Prospect sees a big possible win in redevelopment of the United land, Mike Nelson is gearing up to accept a loss. Nelson's a big, tall guy, with a graying Hulk Hogan mustache. He's the fire chief of Elk Grove Township, and he can see the United campus from his office across the street. His firefighters, 15 full time and 25 part time, have been taking care of United's campus in unincorporated Elk Grove Township for years. But that would change if the land is annexed by Mount Prospect; its fire department would be in charge.

NELSON: I don't see where it's going to happen today, but I'm sure within the next five to 10 years where this is going to wind up being taken in by the village.

Nelson says he wants the United land to be used eventually. But he's okay with it if the phones don't ring on the big sale for a little while.

For this week's windy indicator, we went underground, to the State and Lake subway platform on Chicago's Red Line, to hear what the economy looks like to people who have worked there through good times and bad.

Almost 20 years ago, Joseph Ellison's friends egged him on to bring his guitar to the subway during his lunch hour. He came back upstairs with 80 dollars in his hand, walked into his boss's office and quit.

ELLISON: I think the economy is really doing bad. I watch everything. We see everything out here.  We can tell who's doing well, who's not doing well, who's overspending.

Ron Christian has been Joseph's musical partner since 1992.

CHRISTIAN: The way the economy is now, it's hurting everywhere. I used to come down here and make a nice amount of money. People are generous, they just don't have the money to do it. If you have a good talent, you might just get by. I sing with two orchestras, and I'm in a band, so I'm working all the time. I do this full-time, this is my living. 

ELLISON: I believe music has a healing power in it. We're like the doctor. It's not us--it's the music, the lord. Here, I'll show you…

John Joe:  How about Otis Redding?  Otis.  That's how strong my love is.

JOE: I"ve never done that before. I just wanted to hear some Otis Redding. They're working hard, they earn every dollar they get. I'm a musician, so I know how hard it is to do that.

John plays funk and R&B at clubs like Buddy Guy's Legends, but today he's on his way home from school. He's studying to be an X-ray technician.

JOE:  I've got three kids.  I'm doing my future for them.