Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Chicago's Greatest Memorial? "Monument to Our Stuff" Rises on Division

 "That's the whole meaning of life, isn't it?  Trying to find a place for your stuff."

- George Carlin, 1986

George was on to us nearly decades ago, but I'm betting even he would be amazed at how managing our stuff has metastasized into a building boom of previously unimaginable proportion, sometimes called the Warehouse Nation, a triumvirate of self-storage for all the stuff we no longer have room for, data centers for the endless corridors of servers allowing us to order stuff from our sofas, and, to keep all stuff from the manufacturers at ready for the final drop at our doorstep: warehouses.   Since 2011, we've built 2.3 billion square feet of them, which, to put it into perspective, would fill up more than a third of the total surface area within the city limits of Chicago.

By 2022, Chicago had 44 industrial buildings under construction totaling 23.7 million square feet, with a vacancy rate under 7%.  Throughout the metro area, structures over a million square feet have become as ubiquitous as 7-11s.

To be sure, there have been larger warehouses built, and often, but in some ways, the massive structure rising at 1237 West Division may symbolize some kind of apogee.   It's not in the suburbs, but in the city.  At over 11 acres and the third largest industrial construction currently going up in Chicago. it's not just sprawling, but the first new warehouse in Chicago to be double-deckered.  Huge trucks will drive multiple 300 to 400 foot long ramps, including one coiling inside a round structure at the corner, to access and depart from a second floor 36 feet up. (You can read the Chicago Department of Planning's full document on the project, with floorplans and illustrations, here.)

The overall dimensions are staggering:  a quarter-million square feet on each floor, 28 docks on each, plus two 32,000 square-foot mezzanines.  The complex stretches a block and a half down Elston, with a 48,000 square foot office component at the warehouse's southeast corner, connecting via a skybridge to a five-level, 431 stall parking garage at the corner of Cortez. Renderings show the main structure's massive roof also devoted to parking.  Owner Logistic's Property Company secured $150,000,000 in construction funding for the project.  Irving, California based Ware Malcomb, with offices in Oak Brook, is the architect.

Soon - if it's not happening already - they'll start pouring the concrete for the second level, but on the day of my visit, the full 70-foot height of the interior was visible as a single volume encased in an intense steel grid.  It's a truly overwhelming sight, echos of Escher at pharaonic scale.

The life of the site extends all the way back to 1883, when a precursor of Peoples Gas built a manufactured gas plant there.  That lasted until 1962, when gas production ended, with the aboveground infrastructure that supported it dismantled and removed.  Thereafter Peoples Gas also used the site for a service center, warehouse, and vehicle repair shop.. The bulk of the property was a surface parking lot.  In 2020, the buildings providing utility service were moved to a new Logistics Support building, designed by Epstein, on the old Commerce Clearing House site on Peterson west of Pulaski.  Peoples Gas razed the buildings closest to Division and sold the property for $55 million.

Remediating the toxic elements that accumulated on the site over more than a century - soil, sediment and ground water contamination - proved a massive project in itself.  A 2015 clean-up under the State of Illinois Remediation Program excavated to a minimum depth of 3 feet below ground.  About 164,000 tons of material and one million gallons of water were removed and disposed of. Total cost exceeded $25 million before any construction could even begin.

Although the project is at the confluence of three major modes of transport, it's not using either its nearness to the river or adjacency to Metra tracks.  On the other side of the tracks, however, is the Kennedy expressway, with full on and off ramps both north and southbound.  As always, commissioned studies found that there are no projected problems with either added traffic or air pollution.

In renderings, the facades are grey and utilitarian to the extreme.  The original spandrels and openings in the garage structure have, according to the city's Department of Planning, been replaced with metal screening and "public art", still to be unveiled.  The DPD claimed credit for changing the color screen from tan/beige to a "modern, neutral palette." A/K/A: grey.  

The only consolation to the crushing drabness on epic scale is that it fits right in with its surrounding industrial neighborhood, where the only relief, across Elston, is the Goose Island Overlook and Azul Mariscos.

A Brief History of Stuff

Image Courtesy The Chuckman Collection

Today, we expect the stuff we order to be at our door the same day, or even within a few hours.  It's a back-to-the-future kind of thing.  A century ago, a store like Marshall Field's had a fleet of delivery trucks ready to speed purchases to customers' residences.  The development of the automobile culture changed this dynamic, as department stores, and later shopping malls and big box stores became the new warehouses.  The customer relieved the retailer of the cost and took over the burden and expense of delivery, popping our purchases in the trunk for the quick trip home.

Then Amazon and the internet age changed the equation again.  Once upon a time, salespeople were required to take merchandise from behind the counter for our inspection.  Then self-service put it all out front.  Once, encounters with other people, often annoying and indifferent people, was considered a normal part of life, whether it was dealing with a crowd in a movie theater, or a check-out clerk who could be indifferent or in a snit.  

For the supply chain was about to change that. Efficiency was all. Manufacturing developed the concept of "just-in-time" delivery, receiving materials and parts only hours before they're actually needed.  That would have seemed to eliminated the middleman, with delivery direct from one manufacturer to another, but in reality it often meant more warehouses to bring the parts within striking range for "just-in-time" delivery.  It required a perfectly humming supply chain.  And then the pandemic tore it all to shreds.  Ships backed up for weeks in port, supply chain disruptions, delays, shortages.

By that time, the internet had changed the consumer equation still again.  We no longer have to deal with the "other".  We simple fire up our browsers, where algorithms seamlessly guide us from choice to choice, an infinity of selection, of every product, from every store, without ever leaving our computer.  And we can get it almost instantly, in a lovely cardboard box, without ever having a physical encounter with another human being.  Have a craving for Vanilla Fudge Carmel ice cream or to replenish the liquor cabinet at 2 a.m.?  There's an app for that.  And an almost unimaginably massive supply chain behind it.

Once, the retailer was the middleman.  Now the warehouse is the middleman, the clearing house where everything from everywhere converges all at once for the final journey to slake our desires.

A century ago, in Chicago and any other major city, it was common to find factory and warehouse building of six stories or higher.  With suburbanization, the evolution of car culture, and the availability of cheaper land, these became obsolete.  The new paradigm was the sprawling one-level structure, with no elevators, stairs or chutes to impede the frictionless flow of goods and material through space

"Oh, yeah?" counters 1237, with its proud five levels.  But you have to wonder if the Great Gray Whale of Division Street is the kind of over-the-top expression that marks an era's giddy peak.  Block Club Chicago reports no tenants have yet been signed.  Elsewhere in Chicago, Amazon has pulled back on two large facilities it commissioned in Bridgeport and Addison, part of a general national retrenchment.  It has also indefinitely postponed a planned 26-acre delivery hub warehouse in West Humboldt Park.  It's a national trend.  Will 1237 be a case of, "Suppose they had a great party, but nobody came?"

Often, buildings are at their most interesting when under construction - the finished product can't compete.  I'm thinking that'll be the case with 1237.  So if you can free up the time, make a trip to Division and Elston while the wonder of the bare bones can still be seen.

Digressive, Depressive Epilogue

"Why the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder", says James Tyrone in a rare, fleeting moment of self-awareness of his compulsive skinflint ways.

Today, the answer would be: "everything". We spend prodigious megawatt hours in searching for bargains on-line, but we're far from cheapskates.  Even in our increasingly virtualized world, we remain ever more fecund in the art of physical accumulation.  We fill up our ever larger houses, park in the driveway to free up the garage, and then move the overflow to self-storage units - another booming industry.  Why?  Because we can!  Because we must.  Marx was off-point.  Man is not an economic animal, but a consuming animal.  And a hoarding one.  Is it because we think if we save everything, it betters the odds that it'll include that one thing we'll need to surrender to buy off death?

And so we fill the oceans with trash, draw down the water of our rivers, despoil and deplete the earth mining its treasure, fill the air with exhaust that gets our planet closer to the boiling point.  Not sure the ultimate destination, but, as long as it lasts, it's an amazing ride.

"What the Hell was it i wanted to buy, I wonder" said Tyrone, "that was worth . . ."