A quick look at the new boom Loop apartment construction, and whether there’s really enough demand to justify all this supply.

This Saturday Feb. 15th I’ll be contributing to a unique walking tour of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The event is organized by Chicago Detours, an unconventional touring company run by my friend Amanda Scotese. I first met Amanda when I wrote about her company last year. I really liked the way she combined high-concept urban theory with a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m excited to have the chance to collaborate with her.

Here’s Amanda’s description of the event:

FEBRUARY 4 - CHICAGO, IL — In collaboration with Azimuth Projects, Chicago Detours offers “Saturated Landscape,” a special afternoon event of an art exhibition and tour in Logan Square on Saturday, February 15. This two-part experience, held at the Azimuth Projects apartment gallery from 2pm-5pm, combines an intimate exhibition of landscape-inspired works with a creative walking tour of the everyday landscape of the neighborhood.

“Saturated Landscape” is the first “Detour” of 2014, which are Chicago Detours’ series of one-off events. Both the tour and exhibition address the metamorphosis of landscapes and the emotional and social ideas we attach to nature and the built environment. The tour around regular side streets in Logan Square will spark consideration of the everyday features of the neighborhood landscape, such as lawns and Milwaukee Avenue.

Not exactly a historical or architectural tour, the one-hour-long tour will explore the ways we overlook or interpret the unseen processes and messages of our everyday Logan Square landscape and its vernacular architecture, from the habitat of rats to the social function of lawn ornaments and window arrangements. Chicago Detours Executive Director Amanda Scotese and collaborators will also talk about the profit-motivated perspective of realtors, the intricate engineering underground, and why the Midwest landscape is considered so boring.

For the exhibition portion of the event, which has been curated by Azimuth Projects Director Helen Maurene Cooper, artists Peter Cardone and Madeleine Bailey will show their works. Cardone will exhibit pairs of large format photographs that show a two-part process of first photographing an overgrown lot, and then clearing the location for a second image. Bailey’s new body of mixed media work has layered paper, photographs and paint to manipulateimages into complex abstractions that capture subtle shifts in location and time.

Because the walking tour is already filling up, Chicago Detours has added an additional time slot. Two limited groups of 18 can experience the walk at either 2:15pm-3:15pm or 4:00pm-5:00pm. The tour requires advance reservations through www.chicagodetours.com. Guests meet at the Azimuth Projects apartment gallery at 2704 N. Whipple St. for the tour. The $12 ticket includes Katherine Anne Confections hot chocolate for the walk, hand warmers, post card gift, and a $20 gift card for a future tour of interior architecture or historic bars. Attendance to the art exhibition is free.

Chicago Detours‘ one-off “Detours” are a new approach to a tour, so that beyond a tour guide sharing stories, guests have entire experiences designed around a particular theme and often taking place at exclusive locations. In addition to Chicago Detours tour guides leading these special events, this creative tour company will often partner with organizations and experts in cultural fields will share their passion and knowledge for niches of Chicago happenings and history.

For my portion of the tour I’ll be addressing the notion of “wealth” — how landscapes are often seen as a means of generating money. Basically I plan to talk about the real estate market in a neighborhood that’s often seen as the poster child for Chicago gentrification, and what the broader implications of that phenomenon are.

I know the weather has been brutal of late, but it’s supposed to be in the high 20s on Saturday. So basically it will feel like a picnic. I hope you can join us!

Graham Thompson, owner of Optimo Hat Co., ordered a custom concrete countertop for his shop in the Monadnock Building. Concrete floors, countertops and home wares are popping up in chic homes and shops all over town. (Photo by Robin Amer)

Once maligned as ugly and utilitarian — or worse, associated with out-of-vogue architectural Brutalism — concrete is back. The bulk stuff is popular again with hip builders, architects and craftsmen, and being put to use in upscale residential and commercial interiors all over Chicago.

New feature. Read the rest here.


I’ve just wrapped up a big project for WBEZ about the history of Chicago-style bungalows. There are more than 80,000 bungalows in Chicago, which means they account for nearly one-third of the city’s single-family housing stock. And this year marks the 100th anniversary of the first great wave of bungalow building.

I created virtual tours of three bungalows in different parts of the city. You can see the inside of homes that belong to a Latino firefighter in Jefferson Park, a Polish-American couple in West Ridge and an African-American family in Morgan Park (near Pullman). That last one is especially amazing, I think, because of the owner’s story. Ingrid Sanders is the fourth generation in her family to live in the house! (Her five-year-old son is the fifth!)

I’ll also be on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift Monday afternoon at 2pm talking about the story and taking calls from homeowners.

Billy Goat owner Sam Sianis behind the register of his famous tavern. ‘We’re not going to move,’ he said Tuesday. ‘We’re not going to look for another space.’

Back on the home page of WBEZ today with my story about the potential demise of Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern. Click here to read.


CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. The Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat named this unusual skyscraper ‘Best Worldwide’ Thursday. (AP/Vincent Thian) 


Beijing locals know the building that houses China’s state-run television station by its affectionate nickname: “Big Pants.” From certain angles, the skyscraper resembles a pair of shiny silver trousers straddling the capital city.

Architecture fans the world over recognize the structure, too. The building, properly known as CCTV Headquarters, and its architect, the maverick Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, took home top honors Thursday night from the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

In awarding its annual prize for “Best Tall Building Worldwide,” the council said that Koolhaas’ creation had “singlehandedly paved the way from the height-obsessed, set-back skyscraper of the past to the sculptural and spatial skyscraper of the present.” 

The 768-foot-tall building became an instant icon when it was completed in 2012.

CCTV had to stand out, Koolhaas told an audience of nearly 600 council delegates Thursday, because Beijing’s ongoing building boom could mean an excess of 300 skyscrapers in the next few decades.

“It didn’t make sense to do a needle or to go for height,” Koolhaas said.

Instead, he and his team at the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture created an unpredictable geometric loop that shifts at every angle. From some vantage points it looks like a sleek glass “Z.” From others, it resembles a towering, angular Mobius strip.  

Koolhaas said the building’s most well known view was his least favorite, and that the structure’s unpredictability was its greatest achievement.

“Its versatility is its most modern contribution to Beijing,” he said.    

Koolhaas won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, sometimes called architecture’s Nobel Prize, in 2000. His other buildings include Seattle’s Central Library, Portugal’s Casa da Musica concert hall and the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

CCTV beat out three other noteworthy skyscrapers Thursday to win. Each had earned council honors for its respective geographic region:

At 1004 feet and 73 stories, the Shard in London is now Europe’s tallest building, collapsing 30 acres of space into a single acre of land. It took Italian architect Renzo Piano, who also designed the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, and British developer Irvine Sellar to devise a building that Sellar said would help stop the previously anti-tall building city “from becoming a museum.” 

The Bow in Calgary was so named for its shape, which is something akin to a cross-section of celery stalk. British architects Foster + Partners clustered core uses in the center and surrounded each floor with small offices, giving cubicle-dwellers access to a stunning view of the Rocky Mountains. 

Sowwah Square, the home of Abu Dhabi’s regional securities exchange, features climate control measures like a double-paned exterior glass wall that helps cool and recirculate air, and blinds that raise and lower automatically depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun, to manage temperatures that can be in excess of 115 degrees.

“I thought [making the decision] would be pretty straightforward, and it was not at all,” council executive director Anthony Wood said in a statement Friday. “It went through four rounds of voting before we decided on the winner.” 

The Council on Tall Buildings is the world’s arbiter of official skyscraper height, and also conducts research on sustainable building practices. 

The group also gave awards Thursday for innovation and lifetime achievement.

Innovation awards went to Kone Corp., a Finnish company that created a super strong, lightweight carbon-fiber rope they hope will replace traditional steel cables in high-rise elevators, and the BROAD Group, a Chinese company that has developed a modular building system that enables construction workers to snap one pre-fabricated piece into the next, almost like Legos.

Henry Cobb, a founding partner along with I.M. Pei of the international architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, took home one of two lifetime achievement awards. The other went to Chicago geotechnical engineer Clyde N. Baker Jr., who had a hand in designing the foundations of seven of the world’s 16 tallest buildings. 

Baker, who retired from the Chicago offices of AECOM in July, discussed his work on the foundations of buildings ranging from the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the never-built Chicago Spire.

“It’s ready for a building, if someone comes up with the money,” Baker said Thursday. 

The Council on Tall Buildings holds its next Chicago event, a symposium on the future of cities, Feb. 14-17 at IIT. 

Follow Robin on Twitter @rsamer. 

It’s been ten years since Ian called me late one Friday to say that he and 60 other people were being evicted. It was January, it was frigid, and they had to be out by morning.

The fire inspectors were coming then, and whatever was left in the building would be destroyed.

Ian lived in an art space called Valhalla, one of eight or so spaces in the Oak & Troy Street mills, a pair of old industrial buildings were the nexus of the city’s underground art and music scene. The previous summer there had been shows there every night: It’s a Fucking Trap at Pink Rabbit, Wrangler Brutes at the Bakery. On Halloween there had been a 24-hour show and costume party that culminated with the noise band Lightning Bolt playing to an audience of perhaps thousands, all of us packed and pushing closer and closer together under the hypnotic spell of Brian Chippendale’s spastic, unpredictable drumming. The floor nearly collapsed that night.

The mills weren’t zoned residential, and they certainly weren’t supposed to have shows. No one living there had permits to build the crawl spaces, loft beds, partition walls or makeshift darkrooms that filled the building. But the residents did have leases, and a handshake agreement with the property manager to stay under the radar while the owner looked the other way.

That changed after the Station night club fire in West Warwick; 100 metal fans died there when the band’s pyrotechnics ignited foam insulation material around the stage. However one might have described Rhode Island’s various municipal fire inspectors before that point, after that, they meant business.

There was chaos and confusion after the eviction notices were handed out. Information was spotty, and the pieces didn’t quite add up. They had leases, but did they have rights? Why were they being evicted before an inspection had taken place? Was the owner just trying to cover his tracks before the city got there?

By morning, that last one would emerge as the prevailing theory.

Ian called me that night because I had been working on a documentary about the adaptive reuse of the city’s mill buildings, and the contentious debates that had resulted ever since a developer had torn down a building that was home to the legendary art space Fort Thunder in order to build a shopping plaza. The loss of that place had been traumatic for the art scene. Now, some people accepted this repetition of history as the inevitable outcome of a devil’s bargain they had made by choosing to live in an illegal space.

I recorded at Oak & Troy all night, watching my friends make painful, split-second decisions about what to keep and what to let go.

And in the morning the fire inspectors came.

They walked through the buildings in dismay, shaking their heads at the makeshift construction. One said, “This whole place could go up like a match stick.”

They shut down the buildings. To the best of my knowledge they’ve been empty since.

All of that made it into my documentary. But I’m still rather haunted by what didn’t make it in, by what I didn’t report.

I had heard that the building was owned by a man who lived in the suburbs of Providence who ran a successful real estate business and hospitality company. I knew that he was scheduled to appear in housing court in connection to Oak & Troy.

But I never followed up. I never went to watch the court proceedings, I never pulled the property records for the building. I never called the owner for comment, so I was never able to ask him whether he knew there were people living in his factory buildings or whether he had singed off on it. I never called the property manager who had handed out the leases and the eviction notices, even though the tenants gave me his first name and his phone number.

Why? I don’t know. That’s the honest answer. It was almost as if it never occurred to me. I think also that I didn’t know where to start. But looking back on it, it seems as if it were impossible, somehow, to get to the bottom of what had really happened. It was like the systems of power at work were so murky and inaccessible that I couldn’t wrap my head around them.

It seems crazy to me now, a complete failure on my part to conduct the most basic kind of reporting. Not following up on this lead, not pulling this thread to see where it went is my single biggest reporting regret.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t endeavor to make the overall documentary fair and balanced. I couldn’t shake my very real friendships with some of the people who were at risk here. But in the course of my reporting I interviewed three different developers, each working to renovate various industrial buildings, at great length. I also included the opinions of at least two other pro-development figures — one was a city council member who had been in favor of the Eagle Square development and the other was the former point-person for development in the mayor’s office. I truly did not want the piece to be one-sided, because I thought a one-sided piece would be useless. There were already plenty of people advocating one way or another.

I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot lately, now that I’m in journalism school. I’ve been learning things the past few weeks that would have helped me a lot back then, and that would have made the path so much clearer: how to use publicly available documents to trace the ownership history of a building, or to see when the building has been tied up in a law suit or whether it’s received the necessary permits to move forward with demolition. They’re just building blocks, but I hope they’ll be a foundation for something bigger.

That’s why today, I submitted the paper work to major in business reporting. I’m sort of laughing as I type this, because I would not have predicted this path for myself. (I literally majored in something called art semiotics as an undergraduate, so. . . .) Over the next few months I’ll continue to report on housing and real estate issues, but I’ll broaden my scope city wide. I’ll also, hopefully, explore environmental issues having to do with land use, infrastructure and development. But I’ll also be taking seminars where I learn about markets, financial indicators and monetary policy.

Not because I want to work for Bloomberg, but because I want to do stories like the one I did 10 years ago, just better. I want to learn from people like Susan Chandler, an investigative real estate reporter who teaches in my program and who did this awesome story about real estate deed fraud on the South Side.

Basically, I am going to try and do what I think all good investigative reporters do.

I am going to follow the money.


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