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Placemaking Requires More Than Cosmetic Changes

Sterile office parks and towers are out of style. Today’s tenants prefer buildings that quicken the pulse, ones that do more than simply provide a place to work.

“It’s more about creating a place that is enticing to the general public, you have to make places with heart and soul,” Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker said during Bisnow’s Chicago Deep Dish: Placemaking webinar last week.

Workshop 4200

The problem with many properties from past eras is that they were designed for single tenants, and landlords did not need to entice anyone else. Zucker’s firm in 2019 acquired a vacant former AT&T campus in suburban Hoffman Estates, and immediately began planning how to make a community gathering space out of a property few local residents ever visited.

The ultimate goal for the 1.6M SF low-rise complex now called Bell Works Chicagoland is to re-create in miniature the active street life people have become accustomed to in trendy city neighborhoods, similar to what Somerset did with the 2M SF former Bell Labs in suburban New Jersey.

One of the first steps for Somerset will be to demolish an outside bridge that Zucker said looks foreboding to visitors.

“We want to make the space a little bit more welcoming to the average person, and send the subtle message that this is no longer just a corporate entity where the outside is not welcomed in,” he said.

Placemaking is more than cosmetic changes, Baum Revision principal Scott Goldman added. His firm takes over potential adaptive reuse projects that can have a strong identity, one that comes not just from the structural qualities, but from its historic use, the history of the surrounding neighborhood and its overall environment.

Earlier this year, Baum and its joint venture partner, Meridian Realty Advisers, bought a 240K SF, two-building campus just north of Logan Square once used by WMS as its headquarters. The redevelopment will upgrade amenities and common areas such as a basketball court, café, fitness center and outdoor terrace, but what will make it work is the campuses’ Chicago River location and an abundance of green space, Goldman said.

Clockwise from top left: Phoenix Development CEO John Mangel, Baum Revision principal Scott Goldman, Leopardo Project Executive Erik Magsamen, Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker

Those qualities led the partners to rebrand the campus Riverview at Roscoe, and decide to establish it as a LEED Platinum development dedicated to health and wellness, Goldman said. That will also make it more attractive to tenants looking for more open spaces, especially outside of downtown, due to coronavirus concerns.

“These are trends that are working in our favor, and probably accelerating.”

Chamberlain University, a nursing school, recently agreed to lease 75K SF at Riverview.

Bringing in the right mix of tenants will also make a building more than just a set of walls, Goldman added. In 2015, Baum acquired the vacant former Hammond Organ Factory at 4200 West Diversey Ave. in the Hermosa neighborhood, and transformed it into Workshop 4200. The 145K SF facility now hosts about 30 small tenants, a collection of builders, artists, teachers, performers, designers, engineers and other creative users.

Even though Baum has held small concerts, art shows and charitable events in the space, it’s the many relationships built among the tenants, including new business relationships, that really made it into a community-oriented institution, he said. And that ends up bolstering the landlords’ bottom line as well.

“If you’re a tenant or a small business, and you’ve got a limited marketing budget, and probably a limited capacity, if the landlord can create an environment that can take care of a lot of that, you’re going to be a lot stickier, and everyone wins in the end.”