Though the pandemic is waning, downtown Chicago remains semi-comatose. On a Monday at mid-day, the financial district was empty except for a handful of pedestrians. Absent were the Ubers, trucks, and cabs usually clogging this part of town. South LaSalle Street, which has been in decline since the Chicago Board of Trade (center) closed its trading floors, is even more of a ghost town than before.
How sound are the balance sheets of these massive commercial buildings? The Real Deal reports that, by the end of 2020, the vacancy rate in Chicago’s central business district had climbed to a “grim” level of 14.2 percent, with 148.2 million square feet of unrented office space. Meanwhile, businesses still holding leases tried to reduce their obligations by offering to sublease 5.4 million square feet of vacant space, a 93-percent increase over 2019.
Commercial real estate broker MBRE reports that the vacancy rate has since increased to 15.36 percent at the end of March, 2021. When the sublease space is thrown in, the total rate of surplus office space comes to 19.20 percent. (Office vacancy in the Chicago suburbs has been rising, too.)
With so few Chicagoans commuting downtown, and tourism at a standstill, entities that provide ancillary goods and services are languishing. It’s eerie seeing so few people on this particular stretch of Adams. Normally, people would be strolling toward the Art Institute (center), going for lunch at the Revival Food Hall (left), or doing business at the Federal Court Buildings and Post Office (right).
In-person activity in the vicinity of the Federal Court remains subdued. Chicago’s downtown, while paralyzed by COVID, was also gravely injured by the opportunistic violence perpetrated during the summer of 2020. Many businesses went under in the wake of the looting and the trauma; others, though solvent, remain indefinitely closed for want of custom. Some storefront businesses, like the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock Building (center), stand poised to reopen should their former clientele materialize.
Given the relative expense of doing business in Chicago and prevailing wait-and-see atmosphere, it’s doubtful when the city will wake up and regain its health.