CHICAGO — Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic first shook Chicago, the city’s once-mighty downtown — with its towering skyscrapers, glamorous shops and glittering public spaces — is a humbled giant, taking only tentative steps toward recovery.
At the city’s tallest building, Willis Tower, 15,000 office workers poured through the lobby on a typical day before the pandemic. Last Thursday, between 8 and 9 a.m., Tribune reporters counted 75 people passing through its main entrance.
Depressed by two waves of looting that stunned Chicago, foot traffic on and around the Magnificent Mile shopping district was less than half what it usually is. Occupancy rates for downtown apartments are the lowest they’ve been in 18 years.
As tumultuous as the last six months have been, what happens in the next six — from the presidential election to the possible development of a coronavirus vaccine — could do even more to determine whether Chicago’s downtown reaffirms its role as the undisputed hub of a region of nearly 9.5 million people, the largest metro area in the Midwest.
In Chicago, as in other American cities hammered by the pandemic, the stakes are enormous. Largely due to the COVID-19 slowdown, which has cut deeply into tax revenues from hotels, restaurants, retailers and ride-sharing companies, Chicago is projecting the largest budget deficit in its history, $1.2 billion, for fiscal 2021.
“If we can’t get back to reopening the economy and people wanting to congregate, the attractiveness of all cities is in question,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group.
Bounded by North Avenue on the north, the Stevenson Expressway on the south, Ashland Avenue on the west and Lake Michigan on the east, downtown Chicago is a powerful revenue generator as well as the home of tourist attractions and architectural wonders. According to the Civic Federation, it accounts for roughly 40% of Chicago’s real estate property tax revenue, lessening the property tax burden elsewhere in the city.
To be sure, downtown has overcome a host of past challenges, from the catastrophic property damage and loss of life wrought by the Great Fire of 1871 to the economic collapse of the Great Depression.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some doomsayers predicted that no one would want to live or work in skyscrapers — a forecast that proved spectacularly wrong, not just in New York but also in Chicago.
What makes this crisis different are digital technologies, like Zoom, the videoconferencing app that allows white-collar employees to work from home. During the 1918 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, people still went to work in Chicago’s Loop, although city officials ordered them to arrive at staggered times so they would not overload street cars and elevated trains.
“Technology can bring so many things into your home. That was not the case” in 1918, said Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian.
As a result, the pandemic’s impact is rippling through, and beyond, downtown, disrupting daily routines throughout the region.
Absent downtown’s magnetic pull, suburban train stations sit empty, as do their once-coveted parking spaces. At a Lake Forest station, “people were fighting to get a spot at 9 in the morning. Now there’s three cars there,” said Michael H. Ebner, professor emeritus of history at Lake Forest College and author of a book about the development of Chicago’s North Shore.
Not all the news is bad. Construction has continued during the pandemic, with projects like the 60-story Salesforce Tower at Wolf Point moving forward. Last week, developers Sterling Bay and Magellan Development Group broke ground on a 47-story apartment and hotel tower at 300 N. Michigan Ave.
“I’m still having development meetings week in and week out,” downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly said after the event. “My queue of potential projects in the 42nd Ward is still around 50. They wouldn’t be paying lawyers and architects and traffic consultants to come spend hours with me if those weren’t real.”
Reilly added, ”No one could contemplate this happening 12 months ago, all at once. But Chicago has survived worse. We survived the fire, for crying out loud. We’re going to get through this.”