Thursday, January 10, 2013

At Marina City - Bertrand Goldberg: Screwed Again?

click images for larger view
Can you run a world-class landmark on the cheap without running it into the ground? That's the current question at Marina City, as over 250 condo owners are organizing to stop a controversial renovation of the entrance and elevator lobbies at the Bertrand Goldberg-designed masterpiece.
rendering of entrance lobby renovation
It's one of favorite talking points of the good-'ol-boys power network that plotted beyond closed doors to destroy Bertrand Goldberg's landmark Prentice Hospital:  We don't need Prentice because we'll still have Marina City - if you two world-renowned masterpieces, why wouldn't anyone not want to make it just one?  (The next court hearing on the lawsuit to save Prentice is tomorrow, January 11th.  Stay tuned.)

The irony of all this, of course, is none of these bulldozing power brokers who profess such love for Marina City have lifted a finger to give it landmark protection, allowing the indignities foisted upon this global symbol of the greatness of Chicago to continue unabated.  (Disclosure:  I am a long-time Marina City resident.)

Making it a bit more complicated is that Marina City is among a number of  huge multi-use developments under split ownership.  In the case of an extreme example, the John Hancock Center,  the office, retail, observation deck and condo portions all have different owners, and last November the rooftop and antenna were sold off to still another entity for $70 million.

The basic split at Marina City came in the 1970's, when the rental building was converted to condominiums   The office building, theater, and lower 20 parking floors of the twin towers were spun off to a separate owner who oversaw a downward spiral that soon landed those holdings in housing court as, essentially, an abandoned building.  When new ownership revived the commercial part of Marina City, in came Smith and Wollensky and the House of Blues.  As the complex's office building was converted to the House of Blues of hotel, the concrete of the structure was lovingly cleaned and restored.  It looked beautiful.
Well, we can't have that, can we?  A few years later I received an email from a Marina City admirer who had happened to correspond with the top executive of still another new owner, and was distressed to discover that the executive claimed to be blissfully unaware that what he had just bought had any special architectural merit.  In no time flat, the new owner wiped out all the careful restoration work on the hotel's concrete with a hack paint job, heavy with the kind of cheap-looking gray usually found on back alley loading docks. (Read: Slumming Up Marina City.)

You'd think that those who actually thought enough of Marina City to buy a condo there would be more protective of the architectural legacy of Goldberg's design.  No doubt many are.  They just usually don't have the votes.   The towers themselves have remained under the control of a condo board kept in office in no small part through the proxy votes of non-resident owners who rent out their units.  Their most fervent statement on the building's importance was when they tried to monetize it, through a surreal 2007 campaign engineered by former State Representative and failed judicial candidate Ellis Levin, which tried to shake down photographers with the claim that the condo association, which controlled only the 40 residential floors of the 60-story towers, was mandating that no pictures could be published of Marina City without its written permission. (Read: Stop Taking Pictures of Marina City!)
A recent rehab of the 20th floor laundry rooms included what I found to be rather handsome wall tile that was evocative of Goldberg's design, but more recently, units have all been adorned with the bizarre, bulky plates pictured above, placed next to rather than on the unit doors, that show the position of the planets on the day in 1960 "this building began", with an accompanying inscription in five different languages, including Latin and Greek.  What exactly does this have to do with anything?

Now a new controversy has erupted around the rehab of the residential lobbies. According to a report by Steven Dahlman on the indispensable Marina City Online website, 250 owners have signed a petition demanding a special meeting be called.  Dahlman quotes Marina Towers Condo Association secretary Ellen Chessick citing "lack of input from owners . . . inappropriate and unsatisfactory design and choice of materials, and loss of the travertine stone that is in the lobbies and on every residential floor."  One other resident estimated the value of that stone to be $250,000.  MTCA design committee co-chair and interior designer Marc Straits resigned in protest over what was perceived as the lack of professional oversight for the project.
rendering of elevator lobby renovation
A letter to unit owners from Property Manager David Gantt indicates penny pinching was the dominant engine for the redesign, “Most importantly the lobby renovations will NOT spark a need for a special assessment.” (Lest you miss the point, the sentence is rendered in boldface and underlined.)  Gant cites as a “major benefit to the Association” the fact that the new design is a freebie: “Board Member and Architect Robert Abell has donated the design . . . a prior board . . . contracted with a design firm at what would have been a cost to the Association of $125,000 to provide design services alone.”

Actually paying for good design - oh, the horror!  If these were the people Bertrand Goldberg had to answer to when he originally designed Marina City, they wouldn't be living in a world-class masterpiece, but an upscale version of Cabrini Green.

 Like the owners of the commercial property, the actions of the MTCA board would indicate that they don't place much value in the architectural value of the building they inhabit.  Melichar Architects, which Abell lists on his Linkedin page as his current employer, appears to be a firm as yet untouched by the 20th - much less 21st - century, with pictures galore of projects steeped in “Italian Renaissance”, “Mediterranean Inspiration”, and “Gothic Authenticity.”  Goldberg's son Geoffrey, also an architect, has never been consulted on the redesign.  God forbid, he might actually charge for his services and do a little historic research.
rendering of entrance lobby renovation
Ellen Chessick tells me that construction work on the West Tower lobby has now been stopped, pending a new meeting of the MTCA Board next Tuesday, January 15th.

No one likes spending money, but, on the other hand, no one likes losing it, either.  What remains a mystery is why the Marina City condo board continues to insist on damaging the value of their investment through cheap, generic alterations that destroy the integrity of the historic, world-class design that makes Marina City one of Chicago's most distinctive properties. Lobby spaces - especially entrance lobbies - are how private buildings define their public character.  To visitors and prospective owners alike, it takes only one quick glance.  Does it read engagement or indifference?

If you want an example of how to really maximize property values,  you have only to look at Mies van der Rohes 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments.  Instead of cutting corners, management there didn't just ask for volunteers.  They turned to people who actually have blue chip, internationally recognized credentials in working with world-class buildings: architects Gunny Harboe and Krueck and Sexton.  Together they successfully executed a renovation/restoration plan that has not just won awards, but secured 860-880's status as one of Chicago's premiere addresses.
When they were ripping out the current lobbies, a bit of the original lobby elevator tile, pictured above, was revealed.  This is the kind of research that should be informing renovations to an essential building like Marina City.  Chessick tells me that an archivist from the Art Institute rushed over to take a sample.  Does the condo board even care?  I guess we'll find out, when they meet this coming Tuesday, what kind of building they've decided they live in: an Apple Store or a Walmart.

9 comments:

Randall Kramer said...

Great Reportage Lynne!

I'm so glad that I don't live in a Condo-
after watching 1st hand the vitriol spewed forth
from the neighboring Hi-Rise @ 405 N. Wabash, where the equally dysfunctional Condo Board
fighting against the "other" Condo Assoc. for the Parking Garage-and the Air Rights above- + yet another Condo Association overseeing the Residential Units- and not sure about the Retail/Commercial space in the building.....

Why can't other Architecturally savvy residents band together- to oppose this lunacy?
The example you offer w/ The Mies Bldgs. on LSD, is a perfectly analogous to when you see an Interior Design Magazine featuring "High Budget"/"Low Budget" Design on-a-Dime residence with one home featuring To The Trade Furniture- and the other showing Furniture sourced from CB2/IKEA and Target.

Class?.....My Ass- some would say.
Keep The Faith Lynne!

Anonymous said...

WELL, LB YOUR POINT IS LEGITIMATE. YOU ARE NOT WRONG THE CONDO BOARD AT MARINA CITY IS GARBAGE--THE BUILDING IS BIG TIME AND IT DESERVES MORE RESPECT THAN ITS GETTING.

HOWEVER LB, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT MARINA CITY IS NOT ON THE SAME LEVEL AS 860-880 NORTH LAKESHORE. YOU ARE COMPARING APPLES AND ORANGES. MIES IS MUCH MORE PROLIFIC THAN GOLDBERG AND IT SHOWS IN HOW RENOVATIONS ARE CARRIED OUT.

FURTHER, MARINA CITY IS A MASSIVE COMPLEX FILLED WITH RENTERS AND SUBLETTERS WHILE LAKESHORE IS MORE OF A BOUTIQUE BUILDING. I DOUBT MANY 860-880 LAKESHORE OWNERS LEASE THEIR UNITS OUT.

ADDITIONALLY, I WOULD SUSPECT A MUCH LARGER PROPORTION OF LAKESHORE OWNERS APPRECIATE THE ARTS AND ARCHITECTURE. FINALLY, THESE OWNERS ARE MOST LIKELY BETTER EDUCATED AND WEALTHIER THAN THOSE IN MARINA CITY.

WHATS THIS ALL MEAN? IT MEANS 860-880 RESIDENTS ARE MORE BOTH AWARE OF THE NEED TO PRESERVE FOUNDERS INTENT IN MAKING ALTERATIONS TO THE BUILDING AND MORE CAPABLE OF DOING SO FINANCIALLY.

THE CLOSEST ANALOGY IS THAT OF AN OWNER OF A CLASSIC MUSCLE CAR AND AN OWNER OF A CLASSIC FERRARI. THE CLASSIC MUSCLE CAR IS A GREAT DESIGN ACHIEVEMENT APPRECIATED BY A SIZABLE CROWD. THE FERRARI IS AN EVEN GREATER DESIGN ACHIEVEMENT APPRECIATED BY AN EVEN LARGER CROWD. THE FERRARI IS WORTH MORE THAN THE MUSCLE CAR AND ITS OWNER IS MORE SOPHISTICATED AND WEALTHIER. WHEN IT COMES TIME FOR REPAIRS AND/OR MAINTENANCE, WHICH OWNER DO YOU THINK WILL APPRECIATE THE NEED AND BE EQUIPPED TO PAY FOR WORK THAT RESPECTS THE DESIGNERS INTENT??

Lynn Becker said...

I won't dispute some of your points. Marina City has been the plaything of political insiders ever since it was built, from Charles Swibel to Ed Vrdolyak. I would hardly call 860-880, originally 250 units, as a "boutique" building, but there's no denying Marina is a much larger, more populist complex, which is all to the good. But Ferrari or muscle car, they both need respect, and will become valueless if you keep repairing them with inferior parts you bought from a friend of your brother-in-law who got them while scavenging an alley. Goldberg's original design was distinctive both outside and in, even as the building opened as very affordable housing. It's not unreasonable to suggest that returning to that level of quality is not only a reasonable goal, but one that would be financially rewarding for unit owners.

Anonymous said...

First this: "...and lower 20 parking floors of the twin towers were spun off to a separate owner who oversaw a downward spiral..."

Pun intended? :P

Fantastic article, and it sums up many of the frustrations I've been hearing from other residents. Do you have any information relating to the legal ramifications of the Board initially ignoring the petition and starting construction with no approval except their own?

Unknown said...

The computer renderings do not make me optimistic about the Marina City renovations, and I cringed when I read that the renovation entails removing the travertine stone on the elevator lobby walls. That stone is one of the most attractive interior features. It's also an important feature, as travertine proved a popular material in high modern Chicago architecture. Removing it would be a tragedy, as once it is gone, the board will never find it economical to reinstall. It will be lost forever.

It's interesting to compare the planned renovation to the 860-880 restoration, but there are some important distinctions to keep in mind. 860-880 enjoy landmark status, so the restoration had to meet the approval of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Additionally, the co-op successively secured property tax relief from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, so the plans also had to comply with the state agency's standards. But you're right. 860-880 are the better for it.

Anonymous said...

Great article as usual. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that 860-880 LSD hasn't exactly been outperforming the market. It is one of the cheapest buildings in the area, though we could put together a bit of a counter-factual against some of the (even cheaper) midcentury towers around the southern Gold Coast / Norther Streeterville (which can be had for even less than an 860-880 apartment).

All and all, it is probably not the most effective argument that an investment in good design is a good fiscal move, as evidenced by 860-880. The variables are too dense and, the fact that a nice place can be picked up for under 200K seems to blow some holes into the argument rather quickly. It is a much better argument that we need to landmark our midcentury masterpieces, as evidenced by 860-880.

Marina Development said...

REALLY GREAT .........

I must really commend you for your well written post on real estate. The article encompasses all the details that one would look for in a real estate related article. Keep doing the good work because one would really love to read more from you.

Marina Development said...

THIS TIME.....
I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn't show up. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that
over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

Marina Development said...

the Parking Garage-and the Air Rights above.......
great............