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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.


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

BY ROBIN AMER 

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.


Sandra Benson and Ravon Pugh in their Uptown apartment.

Sandra Benson and Ravon Pugh in their Uptown apartment. (Photo by Robin Amer)

BY ROBIN AMER

Ravon Pugh and his girlfriend, Sandra Benson, sit in their apartment in the Darlington Hotel, a single room occupancy building in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Their surroundings are modest: The linoleum floor is worn and the walls look like they have been painted a hundred times. Milk crates double as furniture. The couple has their own bathroom, but no kitchen. A table in the corner with a hot plate and a deep fryer serves as a food prep area.

But for Pugh, 37, and Benson, 53, it’s home, and a step up from their last apartment. They were among the approximately 150 people evicted from Lakeview’s Hotel Chateau this spring when developer BJB Properties set out to turn the building into market-rate apartments.

The Chateau, Pugh said, was filthy and mismanaged. By contrast, the Darlington is “livable.”

“I can’t even compare,” Pugh said. “It’s clean. There are no pests. They’re even laying new carpeting over here as I speak.”

Even better is the price: Pugh and Benson paid $625 a month for their room at the Chateau. Now they pay $495 a month, and they aren’t charged the extra $20 a month they paid at the Chateau for having more than one person in the unit.

After the evictions, BJB Properties and Catholic Charities offered assistance to residents in search of new housing. In some cases tenants received finical assistance towards a security deposit or first month’s rent.

Pugh and Benson were among the residents who declined assistance. They found their current spot at the Darlington on their own.

But the couple is still on uneasy footing, despite their new digs.

Affordable housing options are increasingly limited in more affluent neighborhoods like Lakeview, according to a report from DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies that came out earlier this year. The study looked at rental housing in Cook County through 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. County wide, “the supply of rental housing affordable to lower-income households did not keep pace with the growing number of lower-income renters,” the report said.

In Lincoln Park and Lakeview, the gap between the affordable units available and what’s needed is as high as 50 percent.

SROs, often seen as a last resort before homelessness, seem to be in especially short supply. BJB alone has purchased and redeveloped five SROs accounting for approximately 700 units of housing, and a separate group of investors purchased Lawrence House, an Uptown SRO, in August.

And families can spend years waiting on subsidized units from the Chicago Housing Authority.

Tina Fassett, a policy and communications associate with DePaul’s housing studies program, said it’s a matter of supply and demand.

“The demand for rental units is going way up in these neighborhoods,” Fassett said. “Whenever you have that kind of demand in an area you’re going to see rents stay high or get higher.”

Pressures on the housing market make things especially hard for people like Pugh and Benson, who see themselves as one layoff away from homelessness.

Pugh is among 4.1 million Americans facing long-term unemployment — those who have been without work for 27 weeks or more. He and 50 co-workers were laid off in 2008 from their jobs as guards for U.S. Security Associates when the company lost a major contract.

Now Benson is the family breadwinner. She used to work two jobs, including one at the Oak Park Denny’s she had for 23 years. But she lost that job in 2010, and now works full time as a meat wrapper for the Dominic’s in Streeterville.

As a member of United Food and Commercial Workers International Local 1546, Benson gets full time hours and benefits. But her take-home pay is only $325 a week, or $15,600 a year. That puts her and Pugh almost exactly on the federal poverty line for a family of two.

“With her income we’re just barely staying afloat,” Pugh said.

But Dominic’s parent company Safeway Inc. announced last month that it would exit the Chicago market by the end of the year, and the company said Thursday that it would close all unsold Chicago area stores by Dec. 28. Crain’s Chicago Business reported Friday that the shutdown could produce the city’s largest layoff in years, with as many as 6,600 employees at risk.

“I’m trying to take it one day at a time and pray that everything works itself out,” Benson said. “If you keep stressing about it you’ll be lost. You’ll just be lost.”

The couple has no savings, and spends nearly 40 percent of Benson’s take-home pay on rent. That makes them “rent burdened” — spending a disproportionate amount of their income on housing.

The problem is most severe for the approximately 238,000 households in Cook County that make less than $22,400 a year, according to the DePaul report.

Those renters are usually faced with a choice: Stay in a more expensive neighborhood and watch their money get eaten up by rent, or leave for cheaper digs elsewhere.

So why stay in an area like Lakeview that is increasingly unaffordable?

Pugh for one said he doesn’t want to move back to a place the South Side where he grew up, plagued as it’s been by violence this year.

“Nobody wants to live in harm’s way,” he said.

And DePaul’s Fassett stresses the importance of preserving low-income housing even in more upscale neighborhoods, which usually have better access to basic services and public transit.

“Mixed-income communities are more sustainable communities,” Fassett said. “Many studies show that when people are in mixed-income areas they have greater access to opportunities, and greater opportunities to get out of poverty.”


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The rear of the Hotel Chateau, a former SRO located at 3838 N. Broadway Ave. (Photo by Robin Amer)

BY ROBIN AMER

CHICAGO — Interior demolition has begun at the shuttered Hotel Chateau in Lakeview, as the project’s developer tries to secure permits necessary for the building’s multimillion dollar rehab.

Lincoln Park developer BJB Properties began gutting the six-story, 145-unit former single room occupancy building at 3838 N. Broadway Ave. in September. Today, a yellow construction chute snakes down from a rear third story window. A cardboard sign taped to the entryway reads “HOTEL CLOSED.”

But BJB has yet to receive the construction permits needed to move forward with future work on the 84-year-old structure. Although the Chicago Buildings Department approved a preliminary review in August and conditionally approved a zoning review in September, the agency denied electrical, refrigeration and fire prevention reviews on Oct. 10 and 11. Plumbing, ventilation and architectural reviews were incomplete as of Wednesday.

A buildings department spokesman did not comment on the project but said expert reviewers will deny plans if they do not meet city building code.

BJB did not comment about why some specific permits had initially been denied. But Matt Butterfield, a BJB representative and vice president at the public relations firm Mac Strategies Group, said these minor snags were a routine part of any permitting process.

“It needs all new plumbing, all new electric service,” Butterfield said of the Chateau. “It will be a complete gut rehab to make sure that it will be well equipped for the next tenants.”

“It’s a major renovation and they’re making sure it’s going to be done right,” Butterfield said.

In 2012, the Chateau’s former owners were cited for more than 100 building code violations including roach infestation, missing smoke detectors, cracked and uneven floors and peeling and water-damaged plaster walls. That same year, 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman expressed concern over “violent crime, loitering, drug dealing and public intoxication” that he said “were also common in and around the property.”

“People were living in deplorable conditions before,” Butterfield said.

Hotel Chateau tenants were evicted this summer after the building was sold, prompting concern among some affordable housing advocates who feared North Side SROs were a dying breed.

BJB worked with several social service organizations, including Catholic Charities, to help tenants secure new housing.

Anonymous investors purchased the Hotel Chateau in February for $9.05 million, according to county records, before securing BJB Properties as property manager and developer.

BJB, which has taken on other SRO renovations in the past, offered 424 W. Diversey Ave. as an example of what a renovated Hotel Chateau might look like.

Rental rates haven’t yet been determined for a renovated Hotel Chateau, but in a statement, a BJB representative said they would be “in line with the market for smaller apartments.”

Follow Robin Amer on Twitter @rsamer.


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Preservationists urged 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith Thursday to stay the demolition of 1800 N. Halsted St. (Photo by Robin Amer)

BY ROBIN AMER

CHICAGO — Preservationists weighed in on the proposed demolition of an architecturally significant building in Lincoln Park Thursday, asking city officials and developers not to tear it down.

In a letter, Landmarks Illinois urged to 43rd Ward Ald. Michele Smith to halt the tear-down of 1800 N. Halsted St. as part of a mixed-use development project planned around the intersection of Halsted and Willow streets.

“This 1800s commercial building has a high degree of architectural quality and integrity and we are very concerned about its proposed demolition,” Lisa DiChiera, Landmarks Illinois’ director of advocacy wrote. “We hope the developer will be urged to strongly consider alternative designs that incorporate the historic building.”

The architect of the three-story brick building is unknown. Still, DiChiera said the building is a strong example of Chicago’s 19th century vernacular architecture. The building is cited in Chicago’s Historic Resources Survey, which tracks architecturally significant buildings constructed prior to 1939.

Buildings coded “red” have what DiChiera called “a high level of architecture integrity.” 1800 N. Halsted St. is coded “orange,” the second highest rating. After permits are filed, buildings coded red and orange automatically trigger a 90-day wait period before demolition can begin.

“I always look at a building like this and think, this is not a throwaway building,” DiChiera said Thursday. “It has its cornice; the retail level is not mucked up. It’s a really nice building.”

The demolition of 1800 N. Halsted St. would make way for a new mixed-use multi-story residential building on the site, as well as new retail along Halsted Street and new town homes along Willow Street, according to information posted on the 43rd Ward’s website.

The project was proposed by Chicago-based real estate company Golub & Co., which is best-known for developing and managing high-end high rises like 22 W. Washington St.

Golub purchased 1800 N. Halsted St. and 10 other buildings along the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Dayton and Halsted streets in March of 2012. The company’s head of development initiatives did not return calls for comment Friday.

Deirdre Graziano sits on the zoning committee of the Lincoln Central Association and serves as the community group’s vice president. She has lived and owned property in Lincoln Park since 1968, and said Friday that the neighborhood has lost many orange-rated historic buildings during her time there.

“When a building is orange-rated, it does not mean it’s insignificant,” Graziano said. “There are some buildings that should be torn down. There’s no question about it. But so many of the buildings in this area are, in many ways, gems that are irreplaceable.”

Some Lincoln Park residents have expressed concern that projects like the one proposed at Halsted and Willow would alter the neighborhood’s character. These residents fear new development that replaces older brick buildings with the kind of large commercial buildings that line the busy retail corridor along North and Clybourn avenues.

Diane Levin chairs the planning committee for the RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association, which is active in the portion of Lincoln Park bordered by Racine and Armitage avenues, the Chicago River and Halsted Street. “RANCH Triangle believes this is about more than just one building,” Levin said Friday. “It’s about the quality of life and the overall aesthetic of the greater community, which is very different from what one gets at North and Clybourn.”

RANCH Triangle co-hosted a community meeting with Ald. Smith Sept. 30 to discuss the project with Golub executives and 43rd Ward residents. Smith declined to comment Friday, but told Crain’s in advance of the September meeting that, “the community is going to have a lot of say about this.”

Landmarks Illinois’ DiChiera said it might be possible to extend the boundaries of the nearby Sheffield Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of HIstoric Places, to include 1800 N. Halsted St. If such an extension were possible, Golub could be eligible for federal tax incentives meant to encourage the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Such tax credits, DiChiera said, could make it more financially feasible for the developer to keep the building in place.

“All of these options should be studied,” DiChiera said.

Follow Robin on Twitter @rsamer. 



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