COVID-19 and crime team up against city’s rep­u­ta­tion

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - droeder@sun­times.com | @Roed­erDavid DAVID ROEDER

The sum­mer of our dis­con­tent is wan­ing. It is giv­ing way to an au­tumn of reck­on­ing, maybe dread for some.

The pan­demic still prowls the land; the econ­omy is in sham­bles and will get worse if Congress lets the lay­off chain spread to new in­dus­tries. We’re fast ap­proach­ing an elec­tion that’s mak­ing us con­front our na­tional di­vi­sions. It can be a time of raw anger in a coun­try in­ca­pable of hav­ing a civil dis­cus­sion of dif­fer­ences, and peo­ple are afraid of what might re­sult, whether it’s more of the loot­ing, po­lice on edge and mak­ing bad de­ci­sions, or 17-yearolds car­ry­ing semi-au­to­mat­ics.

But hey, it’s al­most La­bor Day, so to those who have worked from home, y’all headed back to the of­fice? That was the re­frain early in this pan­demic, dur­ing a more hope­ful spring. Now the signs say a lot of peo­ple don’t want much to do with the of­fice if that means head­ing into the city. COVID-19 is just one rea­son why.

Man­agers of down­town of­fice build­ings tell me their prop­er­ties have about 5% to 10% of their pop­u­la­tion on a typ­i­cal work­day. They ex­pect a lit­tle more ac­tiv­ity after La­bor Day, but how much could de­pend on school sit­u­a­tions. With re­mote learn­ing mostly the norm in the city and sub­urbs, work­ing par­ents need to su­per­vise their chil­dren. Big­gies such as Google and Face­book have ex­tended vol­un­tary work-from-home poli­cies through July 2021, and other em­ploy­ers have gone at least to next Jan­uary.

“There are days I see more boat traf­fic on the river than cars on the streets,” said Lance Knez, vice pres­i­dent of Hines In­ter­ests and pres­i­dent of the Build­ing Own­ers and Man­agers As­so­ci­a­tion of Chicago, which has worked closely with the city to make sure health guide­lines are fol­lowed and prop­er­ties are ready for more peo­ple.

For Knez, the bot­tom line is this: “For peo­ple to come back to work, em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees must first feel safe.” That ap­plies both to of­fice clean­ing reg­i­mens and to what’s go­ing on out­side.

Vicki Noo­nan, man­ag­ing prin­ci­pal at Cush­man & Wake­field, said she hopes more ten­ants will pop­u­late build­ings after La­bor Day, at least grad­u­ally. Some em­ploy­ers have talked about putting peo­ple on an al­ter­nate-day sched­ule for work­ing from home, she said.

Noo­nan, a CTA rider, said the tran­sit agen­cies need to do a bet­ter job ex­plain­ing how clean the sys­tems are to al­lay some con­cerns. As for safety, she said, “I can say some of our peo­ple are say­ing liv­ing in the city is be­com­ing harder.”

“I be­lieve in the urban core,” Noo­nan said, but in­vestors and de­vel­op­ers are find­ing it easy to by­pass Chicago and com­pa­nies here are post­pon­ing ex­pan­sion de­ci­sions. COVID-19 and civil un­rest lead off the rea­sons, but in­vestors also are put off by a cri­sis in govern­ment fi­nances and by pub­lic pen­sion debt, she said.

A June sur­vey by the real es­tate firm CBRE of its na­tional, big­com­pany client base ad­dressed the chang­ing char­ac­ter of work. In it, 61% of 126 se­nior-level ex­ec­u­tives said all em­ploy­ees will be able to work out­side the of­fice at least part time. It also found only 10% of com­pa­nies are con­sid­er­ing leav­ing high-den­sity urban cores, although satel­lite of­fices or flex­i­ble space deals may fig­ure more promi­nently.

So don’t ex­pect down­town or other busi­ness cen­ters to roar back to life soon. The im­pli­ca­tions for Chicago’s com­mer­cial health and for our feel­ings about liv­ing here are enor­mous. The prob­lems of the pan­demic and vi­o­lence are wo­ven in the pub­lic mind.

Al­der­men and re­porters’ in­boxes have got­ten com­plaints the city has got­ten out of con­trol and peo­ple are afraid to be down­town or go to many places in their com­mu­ni­ties. For some, that’s old news, but the anger is spread­ing. The re­marks about down­town haven’t been like that since the 1970s.

Steven Levy, pres­i­dent of Sudler

Prop­erty Man­age­ment, sent a let­ter Aug. 12 to Mayor Lori Light­foot that was made pub­lic. He told Light­foot the res­i­dents in the more than 100 condo as­so­ci­a­tions he serves don’t feel safe, and he ap­pealed for her help.

“They’re avoid­ing neigh­bor­hood walks after 6 p.m.,” Levy wrote. “At night, they don’t stand too close to their win­dows or dare to en­joy their out­door bal­conies or ter­races. Their chil­dren, who will likely be home­bound for the re­main­der of the year, are forced to play in­doors be­cause lo­cal parks and play­grounds have been in­hab­ited with lit­ter, van­dal­ism and crime.

“This is not a way to live, and I can’t fault home­own­ers when they tell me they’re con­sid­er­ing leav­ing Chicago.”

The depart­ing sum­mer finds the city’s rep­u­ta­tion in doubt. Light­foot, who fairly or not is in the front lines for all this, might find the pan­demic alone isn’t her big­gest worry.

MAN­AGERS OF DOWN­TOWN OF­FICE BUILD­INGS TELL ME THEIR PROP­ER­TIES HAVE ABOUT 5-10% OF THEIR POP­U­LA­TION ON A TYP­I­CAL WORK­DAY.

ASH­LEE REZIN GAR­CIA/SUN-TIMES FILE

Bridges over the Chicago River are lifted Mon­day, Aug. 10, after a night of loot­ing down­town.

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