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Chicago Is On The Cusp Of Big Advances In Life Sciences

City and corporate leaders envision Chicago transforming into a life sciences hub that can rival longtime industry leaders such as Boston and San Francisco. It’s a tantalizing vision, and if life sciences companies do agree to establish operations here, it could help fill out several of the massive mixed-use developments set to rise on the downtown’s periphery, including Lincoln Yards on the North Side, and on the South Side, The 78 as well as the former site of Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville.

But industry boosters say they are aiming for more than simply creating demand that will absorb office space. New life sciences facilities will also need lab space, support research and development and could undergird new healthcare facilities, fueling a jobs and infrastructure bonanza sorely needed by disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Sterling Bay's plan for its new life sciences building at Lincoln Yards

“Each one of these megaprojects has an underserved community somewhere in close proximity, and it’s an opportunity to take some of that infrastructure and extend it off of the site from where that lab or where that smart city is into an underserved area,” Level-1 Global Solutions CEO Thomas McElroy said last week during Bisnow's Chicago Life Sciences Update Digital Summit.

“The other part of our responsibility, those that are involved in creating these communities, let’s also make sure those benefits travel outside the boundaries to those who may not have seen the kind of investment that will be in the areas where these facilities will be located,” he added.  

Chicago has the vital ingredients to make that happen, according to Randy Guillot, design principal at Gensler, an architecture firm that designed a planned 320K SF life sciences building at developer Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards.

A collection of academic medical centers in or near downtown such as Northwestern University, Rush University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, other research universities and the headquarters of pharma giants such as Abbott Laboratories, AbbVie and Baxter International, give the region what Boston and other life science hubs have, an existing talent pool that new firms and operations would deepen, he said. New waterfront multifamily developments such as what is being built in Lincoln Yards will make new life sciences communities attractive places to live.

“Those ingredients create a real variety that positions Chicago very interestingly on the national stage,” Guillot said. “But what does that mean for the city in terms of real sustainable, vital growth in our neighborhoods that really benefit the constituencies of those neighborhoods beyond just the life science tenants themselves? That’s really where our opportunity lies, to create authentic, sustainable development that still checks all the boxes of the kind of formulas you need, and that we’ve seen all over the country, for success of these facilities, but done in such a way that truly engages what is unique about Chicago.”  

Clockwise from top left: W.E. O'Neil's Herb Dawson, Murphy Real Estate Services' John Murphy, Level-1 Global Solutions' Thomas McElroy, Taft Stettinius & Hollister’s Graham Grady and Gensler's Randy Guillot

The city is on the cusp of achieving those goals, Murphy Real Estate Services CEO John Murphy said. One of the reasons is that local stakeholders in the life sciences sector seem to understand that these developments can’t be tackled alone. Each structure dedicated to life sciences is far more expensive than even Class-A trophy offices on a per SF basis, with a far greater need for high-tech capabilities such as fiber optics, and can only get underway after close collaborations between developers, architects, tenants and universities, among others.

Murphy’s firm recently redeveloped, along with The Walsh Group, the old Cook County Hospital, shuttered in 2002, into a combination hotel and medical office building. It is the first phase of a 13-acre community called Harrison Square underway on the city’s Near West Side. And in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it’s part of the group developing Michigan State University’s Grand Rapids Innovation Park, which plans to host biomedical, bioengineering and healthcare technology firms. The collaborations pushing that project forward are taking shape in Chicago, he said.

“We’ve seen the onset of collaborations within the silos, within the institutions be it medical or educational, are starting to deteriorate, and where we’ve seen that deterioration, we’ve seen extreme success in these projects,” he said. “I think Chicago is getting there.”