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Fulton Market Is Feeling Increasing Growing Pains. Can The City Do Anything To Soothe Them?

When panelists at an October Bisnow office event were asked to predict the next booming submarket outside of Fulton Market, most shrugged off the question and answered Fulton Market anyway.

It’s easy to be optimistic about the neighborhood. About 15 new office developments totaling more than 3M SF have opened in Fulton Market since the turn of the decade, and a host of new apartment buildings and retail spots are on the way. But a new traffic study illustrates the pain points plaguing the rapidly expanding quarter that remains one of the lone bright spots in Chicago commercial real estate despite its aging infrastructure.

The city is working to alleviate these issues and prevent future problems with a strategic plan that includes additional public transit options and street conversions into one-ways — improvements developers are helping to finance. Stakeholders are hoping they will come in time to keep the neighborhood raking in new people and investment.

A building being renovated in Fulton Market

Depending on the time of day, it’s increasingly difficult to get to Fulton Market and the West Loop, said Andre Brumfield, principal and global cities and urban design leader at Gensler. Brumfield said additional Chicago Transit Authority stations are needed, as well as a multilayered strategy for bus lines on select routes and more balanced guidelines for parking. 

“The last thing a thriving neighborhood needs is traffic and congestion serving as a deterrent for both locals and tourists alike,” Brumfield told Bisnow.

As a part of the city’s plan to combat congestion, the West Central Association, a Chicago neighborhood association that represents Fulton Market and other neighborhoods, conducted a previously unreported September traffic study analyzing traffic counts and crash data at 85 locations. 

The findings: Fulton Market is facing a troubling uptick in evening traffic that coincides with people flooding the area from other parts of the city to visit its shops and restaurants, as well as congestion clogging some of its most important two-way streets.

The most highly trafficked streets in Fulton Market are Halsted Street and Ogden Avenue, both of which are seeing significant vehicle traffic volume. 

Traffic on Halsted Street measured at 19,000 vehicles per day over the summer, near the top of the range for typical traffic volumes on two-lane through streets with left turn lanes in the city. Traffic on Ogden Avenue came in at 30,200 vehicles per day in summer 2023, also close to the top of the range for typical traffic volumes on four-lane streets with left turn lanes in Chicago.

When traffic demand exceeds the physical capacity of a roadway, it can create bottlenecks, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. With more properties set to come online in the next few years, demand for the major roadways will likely increase.

“When there's a rush of people coming into any area, certainly our area, that's going to create traffic and traffic flow issues,” said Armando Chacon, president of the West Central Association board of directors. “Sometimes it gets really, really backed up and can just become a problem.”

Population growth on the Near West Side, which encompasses Fulton Market, exploded from 2010 to 2020. The total area population sat at 67,881 as of 2020, a 23.7% increase over the 10-year period, according to census data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The overall population growth in the entire city over the same period was just 1.9%.   

That population will continue to grow as developers deliver major residential projects. Among the biggest proposed projects are a 390-unit apartment tower Sterling Bay aims to build at 370 North Carpenter St. and a 53-story Crescent Heights luxury tower that would be the tallest building west of the Kennedy Expressway, according to Block Club Chicago

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is home to a growing number of large employers. McDonald’s opened its global headquarters there in 2018, followed by arrivals like Boston Consulting Group, Teknion, Google’s Midwest headquarters and Dyson’s U.S. headquarters.

Ald. Walter Burnett, whose ward encompasses Fulton Market, did not respond to several requests for comment. But others attending a fall meeting on the traffic study were blunt about the challenges of rapidly increasing density within a city grid that remains virtually the same as it was a century ago.

"Incorporating projected volumes from developers seems to be a constantly moving target," Matt Letourneau, vice president of infrastructure consulting firm AECOM said at the meeting. "We see a lot of proposals focused on a one-block area."

May street traffic pattern

One graph in the new study shows traffic patterns on a “typical street” in Fulton Market over three different years, according to Steve Pautsch, a transportation engineer at Civiltech Engineering, the company the city commissioned to conduct it.

The geography of Fulton Market lends itself to many streets that don’t connect to others outside of the neighborhood, he said. While the overall traffic volume is similar to 2018, the time period people are traveling is different, Pautsch said, with afternoon and evening traffic rising and lasting longer than in either 2018 or 2021.

Civiltech was tasked with recommending streets to turn into one-ways to alleviate congestion and to suggest improvements to railroad crossings in the area. It also looked at potential additional accommodations for pedestrians and bikes.

Proposed Fulton Market street directions

In addition to maintaining pre-existing one-way streets, the study recommends turning May Street, Racine Avenue, Green Street and Ada Street into additional one-ways, with directionality shown in the graphic above. 

Additional one-way streets can reduce delays and increase flexibility for the installation of roadway amenities, according to the study. Drawbacks include an increase in travel distance and times, the potential for drivers to speed and drive more aggressively, and a displacement of traffic to adjacent streets. 

Though many of the streets in Fulton Market aren’t seeing the extremely heavy traffic volumes like in other dense areas like River North, even two-way streets with less traffic can face delays caused by double parking or construction-related activities, per the study. 

The traffic study findings have not yet made their way into official policy, though neighborhood leaders hope they will be, including Letourneau, who said he was glad to hear the city is attempting to factor in estimated increased volume into its traffic plans.

"There's buy-in from the city to keep an eye on traffic as the neighborhood evolves," Chacon agreed. " There's an agreement to look at this is, and it's going to be a fluid situation for the immediate future."

The study is the latest development in a nearly decade-long planning process over the burgeoning Fulton Market.

Formerly a central hub of Chicago's meatpacking industry, developers have transformed modern-day Fulton Market into an economic powerhouse fueled by shiny office buildings and top-of-the-line apartments. Yet remnants of the neighborhood's past infrastructure remain — limited sidewalks, old light poles, and out-of-date railroad crossings.

Fulton Market building in 2001

In July 2014, the Chicago Plan Commission adopted the Fulton Market Innovation District plan, which preserved historic assets in the district, updated the zoning code to allow for a variety of commercial uses, permitted downtown-type development through government incentives, and adopted new design standards.  

A 2021 update to that plan included a key goal to improve access to the area via all transportation modes. Both public and private parties are expected to contribute resources to address public infrastructure issues in the area. 

“Not only is infrastructure on our mind, but it's obviously also on the city's mind,” Sterling Bay Managing Director Fred Krol said. “This planning is not going on in a vacuum.”

Short-term priorities in the plan included: six Metra crossing improvements, 23 blocks of sidewalk construction, 43 crosswalk upgrades, 32 Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant corner upgrades, 182 light pole replacement or upgrades and new shared bike stations.

As a part of Sterling Bay’s project at 360 North Green St., the developer will contribute $250,000 toward railroad crossing improvements, as the building is close to the railroad. 

On a larger scale, the city also plans to add new bike lines and improve existing ones, as well as add another Metra station to the neighborhood. 

Krol said Sterling Bay’s developments generate revenue that goes back into the neighborhood to facilitate needed infrastructure improvements in something of a virtuous circle.

“It is through development that you get those infrastructure improvements that without development, it's highly unlikely you're going to see,” Krol said. 

CTA train on tracks

Not all Chicago developers are buying into the city's plans to re-engineer Fulton Market's dated infrastructure and ease congestion, however. Farbman Group CEO Andy Farbman, an active buyer in the Loop, said it's probably not as efficient as encouraging the redevelopment of the existing infrastructure in places already built out for it. 

“The infrastructure was rightly built over the last 100 years to really foster public transport solutions towards bringing the population density during the day to the Central Loop,” Farbman said. “Every time we veer away from those locations, and we move farther west or move farther north, the ability to get the employee base there is greatly weakened.

“It begs the question of, ‘Why are we funding those dollars from a public infrastructure perspective?’” he said. 

Others, including those active in Fulton Market, said complaints about infrastructure were somewhat overhyped.

Alex Najem, CEO and founder of Fulton Street Cos., said he hasn’t heard any complaints from his tenants. On the contrary, he said, adequate infrastructure in the neighborhood is a large part of the reason developers have been able to build decent-sized buildings and attract large corporations to the area.

“The people that complain the most are other developers that have property in other areas that have not been as successful as Fulton Market,” Najem said. “They always bring up the infrastructure, but they actually don't own anything, nor hear anything directly from their tenants about it.” 

Najem said he believes more people living in the area would reduce congestion because more residents could commute to work by walking there. What's more, additional traffic is a byproduct of the way Fulton Market is growing, and it’s something people will get used to.

“I don't think it's gonna be an issue at all. I really don't,” Najem said. “I lived in River North and I watched that place grow to a traffic nightmare. But people just don't care.”