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August 16, 2018

The Pittsfield Building

By Jonathan Zimmerman

“Is the Pittsfield Building cursed?” This is the title of the featured article in a recent edition of Crain’s Chicago Business. (Read it here) Without even reading the story, a sea of memories and emotions washed over me. Why? Because I served as the leasing agent for this mess of a tower for 5 long years and lived to tell the tales.

It was 1996: I was fresh into the real estate business and my attire proved it. Right away, my boss decided that my wardrobe needed an upgrade. He took me over to the Kuppenheimer men’s clothing store located in the Pittsfield lobby and after wandering around for a bit, I was absolutely in awe of the spectacular 5-story atrium, marble finishes and history that oozed from every crevice. That day, I told my boss that we had to find a way to get the leasing assignment. It never happened with him, but little did I know what the future would hold.

Four years later, I was awarded the leasing assignment and it felt like a significant step forward in my effort to build the commercial operation of Rubloff. We were quite excited, especially since our appointment was with the promise that the building was about to be declared a Chicago landmark and embark on a substantial renovation. A public relations firm was hired to promote “the rebirth of the Pittsfield” which was to include modernized elevators, mechanical systems and common areas, as well as a scrubbing of the classic facade back to its original color. I was still under the notion that for many years, this classic Loop tower located at 55 East Washington had a rather prestigious reputation—or so I thought.

Our very first day on the job, my late partner, Matt Gould, and I took up every bit of 7 hours to walk through all the vacancies. The list was so overwhelming that we had to assign grades to each space, A – F. For leasing purposes, we decided that only the A and B suites were to be shown, occasionally the Cs, but the Ds and Fs were off limits until they were fixed up.

After a full day of suite grading, we were mentally exhausted and collapsed into the seats of the legendary Pittsfield Café in the lobby. We sat and ate cheeseburgers while we wondered what the heck we had gotten ourselves into. It did not take us long to figure out how dysfunctional this situation was.

I have endured numerous difficult landlord representation assignments over the years, but nothing quite compares to Pittsfield.

Just in the first year, we witnessed the chief engineer getting fired for stealing a conference table in the middle of the night, another engineer getting fired for allegedly reporting a code violation to get revenge against a perceived slight by the building manager, build outs being completely botched or sometimes not even started at all, bills never being paid on time (especially ours), and got stuck in an elevator during a showing with a woman who then started hyperventilating. The overriding source of angst, however, was an owner who made it next to impossible to lease space.

He insisted on using a 32% common area loss factor, applied to existing tenants on renewals (hey tenant, so, your 500 square foot space was remeasured and is now 800 square feet, and your rent is also increasing!) as well as new deals, had a completely overblown view of what the rents should be, refused to fix up vacancies and generally was averse to spending money on just about everything. Deals were few and far between and frustration set in quickly.

When Matt informed me that he was making the switch to another firm, the very next thing I did was resign the account. After 5 years, ridding myself of this albatross was a tremendous relief. Since then, there seemingly have been never-ending efforts to redevelop the building and move away from office use.

Like so many vintage properties in downtown Chicago which recently have received a new lease on life, Pittsfield deserves to have a similar fate. Fixed up with a well-capitalized developer, it would make a wonderful hotel or apartment building; it has an amazing location and there is just too much natural beauty in this landmark for it to waste away. I will continue to sit on the sidelines as an interested observer, hoping for the best – and grateful to not be involved. So, is the building cursed? Well, maybe a little.