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No HQ2 For Chicago, But The City Got To Show Its Stuff To The World

By the time it was made official that Chicago didn't win the Amazon HQ2 site selection prize of the decade, few were betting that it would — ultimate winners metro DC and New York were solid favorites. Yet after all was said and done, Chicago wasn't left completely empty-handed.

A rendering of the Discovery Partners Institute being planned by the University of Illinois and Related Midwest.

"It would have been great to win, but even so the process highlighted Chicago as attractive for any business looking to relocate," Belgravia Group Chief Operating Officer David Goldman said. "The proposals including some fantastic ideas, such as at Lincoln Yards or the riverfront acreage owned by the Tribune, or Related's South Loop site." 

None of those sites are going away.

"Do other cities the size of Chicago have so many close-in sites of this caliber for redevelopment? Generally speaking, no," Goldman said. 

"It was critical for the city to put its best foot forward in the competition because the upside for the whole region was incredible," Bond Cos. President Rob Bond said, adding that the showcasing of the Chicago River was particularly important. 

"When you understand that the winning sites were along the water — rivers — then it’s clear that those should have been the best sites nominated by the city," Bond said. "The Chicago River is an incredible resource for redevelopment going forward."

Last summer, Amazon’s HQ2 site selection team visited Related Midwest’s 62-acre planned development, called The 78, which the developer says is the largest parcel of undeveloped land in Downtown Chicago.

Amazon isn't going there, but according to Related Midwest, The 78 will be home to the Discovery Partners Institute, an R&D hub led by the University of Illinois. So even without Amazon, the neighborhood will attract tech talent from around the world to Chicago. 

Other sites highlighted by Amazon's search were visited by the company's site selection team in March, namely the Burnham Lakefront, Farpoint Development and Draper and Kramer’s plans for the former Michael Reese Hospital site; Sterling Bay's Lincoln Yards, more than 70 acres in Lincoln Park and Bucktown; 37 riverfront acres owned by Tribune Media; and land in the Fulton Market district, where tech giant Google recently took more space.

"While Amazon's decision was probably made a long time ago, the process helped bring attention to Chicago and its site selection possibilities," Goldman said. "Other businesses have taken note. On the whole, the process was a positive for Chicago."

Daley Plaza, Chicago

The HQ2 competition also highlighted some of the problems that probably helped tip the decision away from Chicago.

Chicago CRE billionaire Sam Zell said at the annual Invest for Kids investment conference in October that by most measures, Chicago clearly had what Amazon said it wanted: talent, transit and an interesting urban core. 

"Yet if I were Amazon, that’d be the last place I’d consider because you’re taking on, excuse the expression, pre-existing conditions,” Crain's reported Zell as saying, referring in particular to the state and city's woeful financial conditions, especially their vast unfunded pension liabilities.

Ahead of today's decision, the common attitude in Chicago seemed to be that losing HQ2 is just as well. Earlier this year, in its Mid-Year Sentiment Report, the Real Estate Center at DePaul University asked survey participants whether winning HQ2 or ongoing organic growth would be better for Chicago. 

The survey participants were split about which would be more beneficial, a quick-forming neighborhood associated with an Amazon HQ2 win (56.6%) or the slower continuation of organic growth (43.4%).

“Winning Amazon HQ2 would be a big plus for all sectors," DePaul University George L. Ruff Endowed Chair Jim Shilling said in the report. "In this market, tech companies are driving growth. Amazon would help do that."

Still, as places like San Francisco and Seattle have grown as major tech hubs, so have huge infrastructure problems and major congestion, Shilling pointed out. 

"Sometimes you have to worry about what you wish for," he said.