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Fulton Market Will Return To Health Despite Scars From Restaurant Closures

The shuttering last summer of Fulton Market’s iconic Blackbird restaurant meant the coronavirus would leave a permanent mark on the up-and-coming neighborhood. The Michelin-starred eatery opened in the late 1990s, becoming one of the pioneers of Chicago’s famed Restaurant Row on West Randolph Street, an attraction that helped change the surrounding area from an industrial zone into today’s sleek, high-tech office center.

But local stakeholders say the loss of Blackbird, among several other local restaurants, won’t impede Fulton Market’s eventual recovery from the pandemic. The strengths that brought so many office users in, including Google and McDonald’s, are still there, even if many firms decide to allow more employees to work more or less permanently from home.

“What is a more entrepreneurial business than restaurants?” Parkside Realty CEO Bob Wislow said Thursday during Bisnow’s Chicago Deep Dish: Future of the West Loop webinar.

Fulton East

He said he expects restaurateurs will invent new concepts that can fill in the vacant spaces that now dot that stretch of Randolph Street. The pent-up demand from local residents and office workers should fuel the new businesses.

“I think people are so sick of carryout food or cooking at home,” Wislow said.

West Loop Community Organization President and Coldwell Banker Residential broker Damone Richardson said he has already seen the beginnings of a comeback. New bookstores, children’s stores and other outlets are opening even while the pandemic is underway, and restaurants have been filled with as many customers as were allowed under the city’s loosening public health restrictions.   

“People are going out, and they’re going out in big numbers, so I’m bullish on restaurants,” he said.

Fulton Market isn’t just an office center. Developers have packed it with thousands of apartments and condos, which allow residents to walk to their jobs throughout the West Loop and the rest of downtown. Richardson takes as a good sign that the local residential market maintained a relatively robust pace of transactions in the past several months.

The pandemic has led many apartment and condo dwellers to look for bigger spaces, and although some Chicagoans left for the suburbs, Richardson said he sees many Fulton Market and West Loop residents trading in studios and one-bedroom units for two bedrooms.

“I did not see a slowdown in business in 2020, and that continues even now in 2021,” Richardson said.

The local office market has a big challenge ahead. When Google opened its regional headquarters in 2015 at 1000 West Fulton St., a 531K SF former cold storage building, and when McDonald’s later announced it would relocate its world headquarters from the suburbs to 110 North Carpenter St., it attracted a flock of other firms, and developers rushed in to fulfill that demand.

Clockwise from top left: Parkside Realty's Bob Wislow, West Loop Community Organization's Damone Richardson, Comcast's Sean McCarthy, Belgravia Group's David Goldman and SVN Chicago Commercial's Scott Maesel

The total inventory in the neighborhood increased from 3.6M SF in Q4 2019 to 5.5M SF by Q4 2020, according to Colliers International, and builders have another 1.5M SF under construction. The vacancy rate increased from 7.5% in Q4 2019 to 28.3% in Q4 2020 after the pandemic shut down new leasing.

Wislow said if the coronavirus vaccines beat back the pandemic, office users will return. The Chicago area still attracts college graduates from all over the Midwest each year, and Fulton Market and the West Loop in general are areas where they can live and commute to work with a short walk.

Prospective office users are already knocking on doors in Fulton Market. Wislow’s Parkside Realty is in talks with Naperville, Illinois-based Calamos Investments to lease 20K SF at Fulton East, its new 90K SF office building at 215 North Peoria St. in Fulton Market, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

Calamos isn’t the only company making the rounds.

“We’ve had one-to-three tours a week at our building,” Wislow said.

Public health and safety features will be considered essential for companies trying to attract new talent, Wislow added, and as a new market still under construction, Fulton Market may be able to better meet that new demand.

Parkside was set to open Fulton East last July, but after the pandemic shutdown, it pivoted and began upgrading the building’s safety features and adding others. Those who don’t want to climb the stairs can use the new “toe-to-go,” a hands-free system that allows users to summon elevators by pressing buttons with their feet. Other recently added safety features include UV lights in the building’s ductworks and wall-mounted cold-plasma devices, both of which can kill airborne pathogens.

“I think that’s going to be a new standard,” he said. “It’s not just for this pandemic. It’s also for flu season and pandemics in the future.”