Downtown Denizens Are Shaken But Not Quite Stirred To Leave Their Homes

Downtown living
Despite indicators that demand for downtown real estate may be softening, many Loop residents — like Lily Moy — say they will wait and see. Monica Eng / WBEZ
Downtown living
Despite indicators that demand for downtown real estate may be softening, many Loop residents — like Lily Moy — say they will wait and see. Monica Eng / WBEZ

Downtown Denizens Are Shaken But Not Quite Stirred To Leave Their Homes

Lily Moy, a tech executive and mom, loves living downtown. And, despite two recent bouts of vandalism that left the Magnificent Mile pocked with plywood storefronts, she said she hasn’t even considered leaving.

“Even with COVID-19 and looting, it’s actually a fabulous place to live, and I live across the street from Water Tower in the heart of it,” she said. “I love how everything is within walking distance, the lake and all this green space. I do more walking and feel more connected to people — and on a daily basis, I help to feed the homeless.”

She said friends called to ask if she was OK during the looting in August, and she informed them that she lives more than 40 stories above ground in a secure building.

“We have 24 hour security and there are protocols for every scenario,” she said. “We have a grocery store in the building. So if I really had to, I wouldn’t have to go out. Plus, there’s a heavy police presence outside.”

But Moy may be part of a shrinking group of downtown optimists these days. Not long after high-end stores on Michigan Avenue were ransacked for a second time in August, Steven Levy, the president of Sudler Property Management — a company that services more than 100 local condo associations, many in the downtown area — sent a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. On Aug. 12, he wrote:

“The homeowners we represent do not feel safe. From Hyde Park to the Gold Coast to Edgewater, residents across the city are adjusting their daily routines out of fear. They’re avoiding neighborhood walks after 6:00 p.m. At night, they don’t stand too close to their windows or dare to enjoy their outdoor balconies or terraces. Their children, who will likely be homebound for the remainder of the year, are forced to play indoors because local parks and playgrounds have been inhabited with litter, vandalism and crime. This is not a way to live, and I can’t fault homeowners when they tell me they’re considering leaving Chicago.”

Chicago Looting Cleanup South State Street May 2020
In late May, volunteers Brenna O’Brien and Don McCord cleaned up the sidewalk outside of the Macy’s Store on South State Street after it was looted. WBEZ Chicago

The sentiment has been echoed by pundits across the country who predict a coming depopulation of urban city centers as working from home becomes the norm and companies distribute their commercial real-estate dollars elsewhere. And, even though Chicago’s downtown population has exploded with more than five times more residents than it had in 1980, rental data shows that demand may be falling right now. Crain’s Chicago Business recently cited numbers from an appraisal firm showing that renters are fleeing downtown high-rises, driving the area’s apartment occupancy rate down to the lowest level since 2002 — 89% in the second quarter — although it should be noted that the biggest recent drop happened before COVID hit Chicago.

Is Chicago witnessing a major turning point? Are we really in store for an urban exodus due to COVID and the unrest? Is optimistic Lily Moy an outlier?

Right now the data says ‘no’ — or at least not yet.

The Chicago Association of Realtors said it has yet to see a spike in owners selling their homes downtown. Crain’s has reported that the recent small rise in for-sale inventory is not driven solely by fallout from the pandemic: There is new unfinished construction on the market and real estate investors (as opposed to individual residents) are selling properties.

Nationally, a Zillow analysis of recent data shows no signs of significant urban to suburban flight. “We found that suburban markets aren’t any stronger than urban markets,” said Cheryl Young, a senior economist at Zillow, the Seattle-based real estate company. “So that really doesn’t support this theory that people are fleeing cities en masse and going to greener pastures or suburban markets.”

For rentals, Young said nationally there has been a slight downturn in urban renting along with a 1% uptick in suburban renting. She attributed the change to younger people moving in with their parents and unemployed renters leaving their city apartments.

But how are residents feeling?

Still, COVID-19 and the recent unrest have left their marks on the city’s priciest neighborhoods, sometimes in unexpected ways. Some residents say they feel a stronger sense of community and are enjoying the less crowded streets. But others, especially older residents, say they don’t feel as safe as they had in the past and miss the amenities they moved there for.

“I think having COVID complicated by looting creates an unbelievable situation that no one could have ever imagined would happen in this area of Chicago which was always one of the safest neighborhoods in the city,” said Deborah Gershbein, president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR). When you walk by buildings that are all boarded up, that’s not normal Streeterville. And we hope it’s temporary. Several of them have signs that say ‘open for business’ but people are hesitant.”

Local artist spraypaints boarded up building
A local artist spray paints a positive message onto a boarded up Loop building. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Judith Aiello, who is on the board of SOAR and lives at 875 N. Michigan Ave. (the former John Hancock building), helps run the farmers market at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She said she has witnessed a renewed sense of community. When the market finally reopened in June, residents flocked to it.

“I can’t tell you the number of neighbors who [came to the market and] said, ‘Thank you, it feels so normal. We needed this,’” Aiello said. And although recent events have prompted some neighbors to demand more security, she said others have taken up the social justice cause.

“At SOAR we have been thinking about what can we do beyond [asking for more police] to reach out to the neighborhoods that are hurting,” she said. “As with a lot of people in the city, [the protests] have opened our eyes. So in addition to working on safety and security in our neighborhood, we hope we can figure out if there are some ways to do some partnerships on the South and West sides, maybe working with our state representatives and aldermen.”

Anne Biere, who has lived downtown for about 20 years, said recent events have also made her think about her role in improving things. She said she was inspired by the ethos of Jahmal Cole’s My Block My Hood My City, a local nonprofit that sponsors opportunities for low-income youth to explore the city beyond their neighborhood.

“I think his mantra is ‘What is one small thing I can do to make my community and city better?’ and that is where I am at,” Biere said. “We’re not leaving. We want Chicago to thrive and succeed and be a great place for everyone and we just have to double down on making it better.”

Boarded up business in South Loop
In June, painted plywood boards covered a small business in South Loop. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

An exodus or hyperbole?

Ald. Brian Hopkins represents the 2nd Ward, which includes parts of Streeterville. He was one of the lawmakers who called on the mayor to step up security in the area due to concerns from residents.

“People are asking me if this is the new normal, if this something we will have to contend with indefinitely, where every three months downtown is destroyed and all the windows are broken and fires start,” he said.

He’s also concerned about higher inventories of downtown properties lately. “But I also wouldn’t call it an exodus,” he said. “I think that’s hyperbole.”

And even if some people do leave, he says, “it’s nothing we can’t sustain … in my ward alone during my [four years] as alderman we have gone from 50,000 to 80,000 residents.”

Gail Spreen, who has sold real estate in Streeterville for three decades, also disagrees with predictions of a downtown exodus but says she did see “slowdowns” in sales right after the May and August lootings. “But they bounced back in between because we have such short memories, like ‘that was so yesterday,’” she said.

Party boat floats down river
A party boat floats between raised bridges on the Chicago River in early June. Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

In fact, Chicago has the fastest growing downtown in the country with the Near North Side, Loop and Near West Side attracting the most new residents among the city’s neighborhoods since 2010, according to a WBEZ analysis.

Lauren Kabir, who is raising three young sons in the former John Hancock building where units range from $200,000 to $2 million, said the cost of living downtown is still worth it. Both she and her husband grew up in the Chicago suburbs but can’t imagine leaving their current home, Kabir said.

“Before COVID, we would go to the Shedd Aquarium and The Field Museum and take the water taxi home. It’s just such a gorgeous place to live and there is so much for kids to learn and do. So we will stay here for the long run,” she said. “The city isn’t quite as beautiful as it was [now] with the boarded up windows, but if that is the worst of it, I think we can hang on until we recover from this.”

Hopkins does worry about the long term. And he wonders how recent events are going to affect continued growth from a certain demographic.

“They are suburban couples who can’t wait to sell the big house and buy the condo downtown. They are empty nesters who can take advantage of all the cultural and dining opportunities downtown,” Hopkins said. “So are those hypothetical families still looking at downtown with longing and desire and waiting for that empty nest situation to happen in their homes? We don’t know that yet.”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at meng@wbez.org.