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Chicago Aims To Develop Life Sciences Clusters And Narrow Its Life Expectancy Gap

Government planners, developers and healthcare institutions are developing plans to foster new biomedical research and life sciences clusters across much of Chicago.  

The plans, which encompass new developments such as Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards on the North Side, Farpoint Development’s undertaking on the former site of Michael Reese Hospital on the South Side, and the Near West Side’s Illinois Medical District, could transform the real estate submarkets that surround the Central Business District.

Northwestern University Associate Vice President for Research Phil Hockberger, Perkins and Will's Adam Glazer, Illinois Medical District CEO Suzet McKinney and Farpoint Development's John Sviokla

The recent decision of Tokyo-based Takeda Pharmaceuticals to move its suburban Chicago headquarters and about 1,000 employees to the Boston area by year’s end illustrates these efforts’ importance, according to panelists at Bisnow’s National Healthcare Series: Midwest Real Estate Summit Tuesday.

Metro Boston already has the life sciences cluster of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, giving researchers there quick access to many nearby universities and medical schools. The Chicago region’s life sciences industry, while substantial, remains largely scattered across the city and the northern suburbs.

“If Chicago is not careful, it’s on its way to becoming Detroit,” Farpoint Development consultant John Sviokla said.

But a series of hubs dedicated to life sciences which, unlike the arid research parks that still dot the suburbs, provide 24/7 environments that attract young people sick of suburban lifestyles, could act as magnets for industry players and startups.  

“We have an urgent need to light that fire,” Sviokla said.

Some planners have even greater ambitions than reversing the outflow of life sciences jobs.

“Our goal is to close the West Side’s life expectancy gap,” Illinois Medical District CEO Suzet McKinney said.

Chicago has the country’s largest average life expectancy gap across its neighborhoods, with Englewood residents on the South Side living only to 60, while those in the affluent Gold Coast neighborhood of Streeterville typically see 90, according to the New York University School of Medicine. McKinney said there is a 16-year life expectancy gap between the Gold Coast and the largely African American neighborhoods near the IMD.

In addition to expanding healthcare access to thousands of residents, one of the district’s chief tools to narrow that gap is job creation, since people with well-paid jobs have more opportunities to take care of their health, McKinney said.  

Life sciences can play a key role, she added.

McKinney envisions thousands of new jobs coming into the IMD, many tailor-made for people living in the underdeveloped West Side. There are about 85,000 life sciences jobs in the state, according to the Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization, and around 40% of those jobs only require a high school diploma or GED.

“That represents a significant opportunity for West Side residents for whom college may not be an option,” McKinney said.

Turner Construction Co. Project Executive Tom Nelson, HSA PrimeCare President John Wilson, Aercoustics consultant Scott Hamilton and Skidmore Owings & Merrill Associate Director Anthony Treu

Sviokla believes it is also important to focus on healthcare-related jobs because most are unlikely to disappear the way retail employment evaporated due to competition with e-commerce.

“The robots are not going to take care of everybody in the hospital,” he said.  

The IMD, an independent agency empowered to make zoning decisions, hires builders and selects tenants within its 560 acres. It has 30 acres of vacant land south of Roosevelt Road.

District officials are already meeting with potential developers of a life sciences cluster there, and aim to have a truly mixed-use community, one that combines research labs, healthcare-related firms and startups, as well as retail, restaurants and new housing.  

Sterling Bay and Farpoint have similar strategies, and that could give Chicago an advantage over the nation’s other research parks, according to Perkins and Will’s Adam Glazer, whose firm designed the new 12-story, 627K SF Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Biomedical Research Center on the downtown campus of Northwestern University.

Glazer said research parks in the past generally were developed by either corporations or universities as single-user sites with little thought given to amenities, but Chicago now has several opportunities to create carefully curated life sciences communities that will help users recruit and retain talent.  

McKinney hopes the IMD, which already contains four hospitals, medical schools and 40 other healthcare institutions, can get a jump-start on Chicago’s other efforts, and perhaps provide a road map for them to follow.

“This isn’t reinventing the wheel, or starting from scratch,” she said.

Still, it is going to take time.

“These are not just buildings we’re developing, these are neighborhoods,” Northwestern University Associate Vice President for Research Phil Hockberger said.