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Real Estate Lessons From Rome

Chicago Hotel

Your Chicago reporter jetted over to Europe last week to do some real estate reconnaissance. And where better to absorb knowledge than Rome, the bedrock of modern civilization (and delizioso bucatini)? Here’s what we learned:

1) We didn’t invent adaptive reuse.


Before Sterling Bay started redeveloping cold storage facilities in Fulton Market, Romans were using recycled building materials for some of their most famous structures. Know why the Colosseum, above, looks like Swiss cheese today? By the 12th century, a very Christian Rome was more than happy to use the worn-down pagan relic as a convenient quarry for new construction projects. Even St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City includes travertine stone chiseled from the old gladiatorial stomping ground. A rough comparison: The United Center’s Michael Jordan statue could be melted down into bronze hardware inside condos of the future.

2) Go big and others will notice.


Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon, above, remains the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome. Its continuous use as a well-preserved church and tomb (Raphael—artist, not Ninja Turtle—is buried there, among others) is a testament to forward-thinking design and technologically advanced construction. (Pro tip: If you’re in the neighborhood, Ristorante Da Fortunato is a delicious place to talk zoning with local politicians.) We saw the Pantheon’s design copied across Europe, from the Pantheon in Paris to the Neue Wache memorial in Berlin. Could this be the fate and legacy of the Chicago Spire, once finally realized?

3) NIMBYs are never going away.


Before there were aldermen listening to complaints about Wrigley Field, NIMBYism was alive and well in the city of Rome. Since its construction began in 1885, Il Vittoriano (a national monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy) has offended many of its neighbors. While we might say marble masterpiece, others call it blinding and pompous, a wedding cake, or a typewriter. That it cut into part of historic Capitoline Hill did not help matters. Though clearly tourists don’t mind marveling at the opulence, above.

4) We could all use more piazzas.


A neighborhood feel is the secret ingredient to any successful multifamily, retail, office, or hospitality project. Rome learned early on that any area becomes more happening with a city square, and there’s no better example than Piazza Navona, above. Local artists, Bernini’s fountain, and breathtaking Palazzo Pamphili combine to create endless foot traffic, an investor/developer’s dream. (Being a backdrop in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons probably didn’t hurt.) Perhaps the rooftop trend in downtown Chicago will achieve similar success, but it’s a more segregated feel with higher barriers to entry (get it?). And a lot fewer gelato options.