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Zimmerman Says...

February 27, 2020

The Central Loop Elixir

By Jonathan Zimmerman

I have been working in the Central Loop for nearly a quarter of a century and in my humble opinion, rumors of the Central Loop’s demise are exaggerated. Undoubtedly, challenges lie ahead as several larger-sized tenants are set to vacate in the upcoming years. It is true that some of the older buildings have grown a bit stale and certainly are less efficient as compared to the newer counterparts in the West Loop.

The buzz which used to percolate on the corner of LaSalle and Madison in decades past no longer exists. I recall a time back in 1998 when I was marketing a corner retail space at 11 South LaSalle and a bidding war erupted between 3 different tenants. We ended up obtaining a rent of $20.00 per square foot over our asking price. Alas, that was a different era.

Fortunately for the City of Chicago, there is an easy solution at hand to revitalizing this essential part of our fair city. It is a solution so obvious and sensible that it will probably never happen. Ready? The State of Illinois and City of Chicago need to come together and do everything in their collective power to locate the Chicago casino at the site of the Thompson Center.

What does this accomplish, you ask? So, so much. Consider the following points:

1) It takes an albatross of a building off the State’s hands and into the control of a private developer/operator, hopefully one who is experienced with building such an entertainment complex. Paying attention Sands, MGM, Wynn and Caesar’s?

2) If designed well, the preservationists can be appeased by maintaining the architecturally significant atrium while integrating the casino, restaurants, retail and performance venue on the lower floors. The upper floors would be a natural fit for a hotel.

3) You cannot ask for a more assessible location, with the Clark/Lake station literally inside the building and Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center a short walk away. The site is also right in the heart of the Chicago Theater District and mere blocks from the River North entertainment district.

4) Build the casino here and watch the tax revenue come rolling in. This money can go towards education, fighting crime, paying down the pension and infrastructure improvements, among other things.

The influx of both locals and tourists to this attraction will have a chain reaction on the surrounding neighborhood. The Central Loop will become cool again. Property owners will be more motivated than ever before to invest in updating their properties. This will lead to a combination of office tenants returning to the newer and recently renovated properties, with several of the older ones gaining new life as hotels and apartments. More restaurants and bars will come into the mix, along with other retailers as well.

Of course, every idea has downfalls and this one is no different. Some may argue that a casino will already add to the congestion that Loop workers, residents and visitors deal with on a daily basis. While this may be true, isn’t the Loop built for this more than any other part of town? Plus, the highest trafficked times for the casino and connected entertainment venues will be nights and weekends, times when the workers are out of the office.

Others may opine that it is a bad look for a casino to be located across the street from City Hall and a block from the Daley Center and County Building. Personally, I cannot think of anything more Chicago than this. Access to the casino can be on the Lake Street side, with the theater on Randolph and hotel on LaSalle. That should help better organize the traffic and limit the comingling with city workers.

Then, there is the legitimate argument that the casino belongs in one of the economically depressed neighborhoods on the South or West sides badly in need of reinvestment. While there is some validity to this point, the truth is that it will be difficult to get tourists and residents of the metropolitan area who live in the suburbs or north side of the city to travel that far away. If the true objective of the casino is to generate tax revenue, it has to be located in the most accessible setting possible.

When one factors in the Thompson Center’s massive list of problems and mixes that with the clear necessity to give a kick start to one of the most essential parts of town, the puzzle pieces come together nicely. Other cities have been able to revitalize downtown areas via casinos, so why can’t Chicago do the same? Hopefully, the political leaders will reach the conclusion that the Thompson Center casino is a win-win for all involved that will pay long-term dividends for the city’s economy for decades to come.