Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a plan on Monday to revitalize the LaSalle Street corridor, a key downtown office district that has experienced a double COVID-19 mishap and the loss of several large companies to new skyscrapers rising further west along Wacker Drive and on Fulton Market.

The mayor said it was time to take advantage of the Loop housing boom and fill empty corridor offices with new tenants, including hundreds of low- and middle-income workers usually deprived of downtown living.

“We need to get this area back to its full potential,” said the mayor. “But do it with justice in mind.”

The road to healing the street can be long. This year’s loss of major office tenants on LaSalle Street such as BMO Harris and the Chapman & Cutler law firm to move to the new BMO Tower West Loop was just the last of many exits, and the mayor estimated in his afternoon press conference that around 5 million square feet commercial space in the surrounding blocks remains vacant.

But city officials imagine that developers using a range of government financing tools over the course of five years have built around 1,000 new homes on a few blocks of LaSalle Street between Washington Street and the Chicago Board of Trade Building, as well as nearby streets. They also plan to fill many empty storefronts, supporting local restaurateurs and retailers who started drowning in red ink when the pandemic struck and customers disappeared.

Downtown’s outlook improved when Google agreed to buy the James R. Thompson Center for $ 105 million this summer and announced plans to use the entire 17-story structure as office space. The company helped kick-start the transformation of Fulton Market, a former industrial district, into a gleaming office center and upscale residential neighborhood when it established its headquarters there in the Midwest in 2015.

But as Lightfoot prepares for next year’s re-election campaign, he wants to avoid criticism for putting too much emphasis on downtown development, a charge often made against predecessors such as former mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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At a press conference, she discussed the administrative program Invest South / West, which gives financial incentives to developers who start projects in underused commercial corridors on the south and west sides, and the reform of the City’s Affordable Regulation of 2021, which increased the amount of affordable housing required in many new housing projects.

The new downtown initiative will follow this path – she added. Thirty percent of the 1,000 units created will be reserved for low-cost housing, a rare commodity in the Central Business District today.

“Today there are only two ARO units completed in the Central Business District, and none on LaSalle Street,” she said.

This part of the initiative should be recognized by the thousands of janitors and service workers who clean and maintain office buildings in the city center, according to Genie Kastrup, president of Local 1, International Union of Service Workers, which represents some 50,000 employees.

“This will be the first time our Local 1 members will be able to live where they clean buildings,” she said.

The Loop population was over 42,000 in 2020, 44% more than 10 years earlier, the fastest growth rate in any Chicago neighborhood, according to the Chicago Loop Alliance advocacy group.

Many of the historic buildings along LaSalle Street could also become attractive apartment blocks, said Department Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox. However, city officials often sat down with property owners on LaSalle Street during their two-year planning and heard a clear message: the cost of converting old office buildings on LaSalle Street into residences makes it difficult to account for inexpensive units.

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The market has shown that the only things that are financially viable are luxury units, Cox said.

Cox said officials could make affordable housing feasible on LaSalle Street with a range of financial incentives available to developers, which hit the 30% mark. Sweeteners include tax credits for the renovation of historic buildings, new real estate tax credits for owners who create affordable housing, tax credits for low-income housing, and funding from LaSalle Central, which is financing the tax increase, created in 2006 but deferred on the shelf by then-mayor Emanuel in 2015.

The planning department will accept proposals to convert the historic buildings on LaSalle Street into affordable residences by December 23, as well as revive their shop windows, Cox added, and will announce a list of the best proposals in January. All the talks between town planners and property owners give him confidence that they will soon receive many offers.

“We were told that if the city could get enough incentives, it would be a game,” he said.

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