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Fulton Market Could Make Chicago A Top Global Player — If The City Addresses Its Ancient Infrastructure

As the epicenter of Chicago's life sciences industry, its live-work-play exemplar and the hub of new Class-A development, the Fulton Market District continues to hold down the fort as the city’s hottest submarket.

Amid struggles to retain talent and leased square footage in Chicago’s downtown corridor, Fulton Market was the city’s only neighborhood where office availability dropped last year. As developers await zoning change requests and approvals, specifically for development along the area's northwest quadrant, excitement is buzzing.

Yet infrastructure concerns loom in the meatpacking district-turned-restaurant and technology mecca. And panelists at Bisnow’s The City of Fulton Market Event July 13 said activity in the innovation district can stretch far and wide beyond the city’s West Loop, but only if the city is willing to make badly needed upgrades.

Xfinity Communities' Andy Schnack, West Central Association Chamber of Commerce's Carla Agostinelli, 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., Gensler's Andre Brumfield, The Hoxton's Amos Kelsey and Department of Planning and Development's Melvin Wesley.

“Chicago has untapped potential for being a global city, not just a U.S. or an Illinois city,” said Melvin Wesley, first deputy commissioner of planning and development for the city of Chicago. “I think that Fulton Market is in its metamorphosis. There’s so much that, as a newcomer, I came to understand. What's on the way to the area hasn't quite arrived yet.”

Wesley stressed that the character of the district and the nature of the neighborhood's fabric are still on their way to changing radically.

“My own concern is that infrastructure, placemaking and public realm are ready to receive that added density — that added energy," he said. "The challenge for me as a planner for the city ... in this district, in particular, is to give direction that helps steer all of this wonderful frenetic energy where it wants to go while preserving and enhancing public realm and public experience."

Panelists discussed the challenges of increasing density in light of a grid that remains virtually the same as it was nearly a century ago, a concern highlighted by ex-Chicago Planning Commissioner Andrew Mooney earlier this year, according to The Real Deal. 

“Let’s remember that the underlying traffic, transportation and utility infrastructure of the district is still pretty much as it was a hundred years ago,” Mooney said.

Fulton Market was adopted by the Chicago Plan Commission as an innovation district in 2014, stripping away former zoning code and making way for new commercial uses. New zoning allowed for maximum development to be built through the Downtown Density Bonus and gave developers license to adopt new design standards. 

Zoning modifications have also been made countless times over the years to accommodate expansion, some of which have required approval by the city council.

Still, infrastructure is lagging behind ambition, with some arguing the area needs a New York City Meatpacking District-level infrastructure makeover to truly be a transformative force.

Residents have been mostly receptive to development over the years, though pushback against tower heights and concerns about traffic circulation have been made by nonprofit group Neighbors of the West Loop. 

But panelists said Fulton Market needs to push forward on infrastructure and other fronts as a model for high-density development with an ability to attract residents, businesses and tourists, comparing its fate favorably to other up-and-coming urban submarkets.

Gensler principal Andre Brumfield cited areas like Mission Bay in San Francisco or South Lake Union in Seattle as sterile and antiseptic versions of the neighborhood, lacking the structure and long-term vision playing out in Chicago. 

"This is the premier example of density, with balance and scale,” Brumfield said. “I think this is something that we need to celebrate in terms of what’s happening here, to be that real model for the country of how we create an authentic place that’s new, that’s balanced, that has the right density, that feels like a place that people want to be at. That’s what makes an urban environment within a city.”

Walter Burnett, alderman of the 27th Ward, likened Fulton Market to a pilot campus for live-work-play amenities and reliance on young talent working in tech. 

“Right now, this is the economic engine for the whole city,” Burnett said. “When everything else was down, nothing was selling, things weren’t happening anywhere else, they were still happening here.”

KMW Communities' Bill Williams, W.E. O'Neil Construction's Richard Davey, SVN Chicago Commercial's Scott Maesel, Level-1 Global Solutions' Thomas McElroy, WeWork's Kali Cardoza and Shapack Partners' Paige O'Neil.

SVN Chicago Managing Director Scott Maesel echoed a similar sentiment, referring to Fulton Market, not the Loop, as the center of the city.

The neighborhood is expected to be on par with Streeterville and River North in average gross price per residential square foot in the future as it approaches The Loop and Lakeshore East, according to Luxury Living Chicago Realty CEO Aaron Galvin.

Maesel also said demand for luxury apartments in the neighborhood is increasing exponentially. Since 2016, 25,000 Class-A apartments have gone up, and another 10,000 are forecast to arrive across 28 properties, according to a presentation Galvin gave on behalf of Luxury Living.

Discussing the fervor surrounding these up-and-coming projects, Shapack Partners President and Managing Broker Paige O'Neil said more residential buildings are needed in order to fuel office development.

“We’re arguing if you look at the northwest quadrant of Fulton Market, that is the next fill-in of density,” O’Neil said. “It’s bringing 5.1M SF more of office and 3,500 more units of apartments, so that [area] is really important, along with the densification of this eastern border.”

O’Neil added that residential development would improve Fulton Market’s 36% walk-to-work rate, a number higher than any other Chicago neighborhood and above sister neighborhoods like Williamsburg in Brooklyn and the Seaport in Boston.

Even in these hot neighborhoods, the drastic drop in the number of people coming to the office remains an impediment to industry growth overall. 

Accend Construction's Dan Polito, Boka Restaurant Group's Rob Katz, Marquette Cos.' Darren Sloniger, DLA Piper's Katie Jahnke Dale, CBRE's Keely Polcznski and Clayco's David Reifman.

For that reason, according to panelists, developers are trying, first and foremost, to attract tenants looking to work and live in Fulton Market.

“Come here,” Clayco President David Reifman said in closing remarks. “Corporations and business communities are stepping up as people go back to the office. This is very important for our industry, and it’s incredibly important for our city. It’s a public safety issue. Fulton can be the leader in that, but we really need everyone coming back to the workplace.”