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May 27, 2018

The Margin: Changing of guard at Willis Tower highlights turbulent period for Chicago real estate

It’s not just the changing of the guard at Willis (né Sears) Tower. The first quarter of 2015 has been a turbulent time for trophy towers and other notable structures throughout Chicago’s built environment.

It was confirmed Monday that Willis Tower, the world’s tallest building from its completion in 1973 until 1998, is being acquired by Blackstone Group

BLK, +1.72%

 from New York investors Joseph Chetrit and Joseph Moinian and Skokie, Ill.–based American Landmark Properties. They paid $841 million for the tower in 2004, while Blackstone’s purchase price of $1.3 million is, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, set to become the highest ever paid for a U.S. office building outside Manhattan.

For Chicagoans, who’ve only reluctantly learned to identify the 110-story skyscraper by the name of the U.K. insurance broker

WSH, +1.74%

rather than that of the Chicago-area-based retailer

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 , the deal delivers none of the psychic blow that its renaming in 2009, in accord with the terms of the Willis Group lease, did.

But, among Cubs diehards, Opening Day at a bleacher-free Wrigley Field is something else entirely. Off-season renovation work fell behind schedule late last year, and, to add insult to injury, City Hall declined recently to bend the rules — and raise neighborhood ire — by allowing construction to proceed around the clock. It’s been reported that it will be May before the famed bleachers are open; even then, only the left- and center-field sections will be at box-office disposal. The right-field bleachers are slated for June completion.

Even in a sports-mad city, though, ballparks are not held quite as dear as municipal parks. And in Grant Park, dubbed Chicago’s Front Door, and down in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, that’s what’s at stake.

On the South Side, there’s been controversy over a prospective location for the Obama presidential library, with a U. of C.–led bid requiring acquisition of park land. The matter has grown touchy enough locally that it’s been reported by Melissa Harris of the Chicago Tribune that the announcement of a decision is likely to be withheld until after the April 7 mayoral runoff. (The Chicago Sun-Times’ Michael Sneed, meanwhile, has reported that the Obamas themselves may no longer be planning a return to Chicago in January 2017.)

In Grant Park, meanwhile, the building-upon of Chicago Park District property — all but verboten by local tradition — is again at issue. George Lucas’s decision to locate his visual-arts museum in Chicago was likely predicated on a prime lakefront location and a central role in the city’s Museum Campus, but the project has met with challenges on both legal and aesthetic grounds.

Along the Chicago River, there’s been an even more concentrated tumult.

True, work proceeded apace through an overly wintry winter on the next civic showpiece, the Chicago Riverwalk.

But, elsewhere along the river — whose evolution into the city’s second waterfront was trumpeted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel during a Monday night debate with challenger Jesus “Chuy” Carcia as a top idea for his second term — the remaining tatters of the Chicago Spire dream, which was to have culminated in the world’s tallest residential structure, were finally swept aside; the Kennedy family has been locked in battle over certain specifics of the high-profile Wolf Point development, according to Crain’s; and a massive, backlit T-R-U-M-P, slapped on the prime river-facing facade of Trump Tower, served as a unifying force in a divided city, with Emanuel calling the signage “architecturally tasteless,” and effectively no one disagreeing.

In the latter incident, the mayor and City Council, faced with widespread outcry about the Trump visual assault, drew a line in the sand. But the city’s new riverfront signage ordinance reluctantly was required to grandfather in the Trump sign. All 2,891 square feet of it.

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The Margin: Changing of guard at Willis Tower highlights turbulent period for Chicago real estate

The Olympic touch

By Josh Farnsworth

Yes, I know.

The economics of bringing the Olympics to Boston, who was awarded the official American Olympic Committee bid for the 2024 games, is something to consider. The Boston committee to bring the games to Massachusetts will have until 2017 to make its case prior to the global winner being selected.

And then there is the traffic.

Gulp.

Put down the calculator and step away from that vehicle for a second and consider what this might mean for Central Massachusetts.

There is a chance here to shine a spotlight, not just on our country, but also on our sliver of real estate we occupy in the world. Planning an event this grand will come with plenty of headache-inducing moments, but the potential for attention on our neck of the woods will never be greater.

Shortly after the bid was announced, Worcester Mayor Joe Petty mentioned the possibility of holding the rowing events on Lake Quinsigamond.

I believe Central Massachusetts can do even better. With existing infrastructure and a plan to relieve some of the angst of jamming every event inside of Route 128, I propose we do the following to allow Central Massachusetts to assist in the 2024 Games:

• Basketball at the DCU Center in Worcester. Whatever “Dream Team” might look like nine years from now, chances are they will still draw fairly heavy audiences.

• Archery/shooting at the Nimrod Gun Club in Princeton. They have the targets set up already, anyways.

• Wrestling at the new Recreation Department building in Holden.

• Equestrian in Grafton, as lodging at Tufts will prove quite handy.

• Marathon weaving down Route 190, cutting through Sterling and to the finish line at the Old Stone Church in West Boylston? Yes, please.

• Cycling along the classic Longsjo Classic route in Fitchburg. Whether this event can comeback as a solid annual event, who knows? But what a tribute using the course this would pay.

• Field hockey at Doyle Field in Leominster. One could use the football field adjacently as a secondary soccer site as well.

• Fencing at Worcester Fencing Club. Makes sense, right?

• Golf at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton. It was good enough for Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer 50 years ago.

• Tennis at the Paxton Sports Centre.

• Table tennis at South Lancaster Academy reinforces the collegiate spirit and profile of the region.

• Boxing in a giant ring built in the middle of the Auburn Mall would create quite the scene.

• Rowing along the Blackstone River, with a beginning launch in Millbury. Sorry, Mayor Petty. More history and substance on this body of water.

• Closing ceremonies? I suggest Rutland put on their fireworks display.

The big city can have the Olympic Stadium and plenty of the festivities for opening the 2024 celebration. Heck, use the city to showcase track and field and the shoreline for beach volleyball, as well as some other great events.

So, take a break, Boston. Central Massachusetts has you covered on many of the sports.

I can feel the heat from the torch right now.

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The Olympic touch

Cicilline invites president of Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, as State of Union guest

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline has invited Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, to be his guest for President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.

“After advocating for decades to establish a national park in Rhode Island, Bob’s hard work paid off when Congress approved a bill last month to establish a national park in the Blackstone River Valley,” Cicilline said in a news release. “Without Bob and the many dedicated and passionate individuals and organizations he represents, there is no doubt in my mind that we would not have been able to create a new national park in Rhode Island. ”

Billington said he was grateful for the opportunity “to represent  the hundreds of people of the Blackstone Valley that worked so hard over the years to make the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park a reality.

President Obama signed legislation in to law on Dec. 19 to establish the park.

Cicilline is the last of the all-Democratic, four-member Rhode Island Congressional delegation to announce his State of the Union Guest.

Sen. Jack Reed’s guest will be Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse invited former lieutenant governor Elizabeth Roberts, now secretary of the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

U.S. Rep. James Langevin’s guest will be Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

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Cicilline invites president of Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, as State of Union guest

Mayor announces new businesses coming to Woonsocket


October 29, 2014

WOONSOCKET – Six businesses – four of them from out of state – are relocating their operations into vacant commercial buildings in the city, including the cavernous shell of Walmart, whose 2011 exit is often blamed for dragging down the city’s retail strip. The 1919 Diamond Hill Road building is to be purchased by Ardent Displays & Packaging of East Hartford, Conn. The company employs about 50 people who manufacture in-store retail displays for some of the biggest names in merchandising, including Walgreen’s, CVS Health, Nokia, Family Dollar and Rockport.
The other newcomers include:
n Ross Matthews & Atlas Products of Fall River. The manufacturer of bungee cords and other braided textile products is relocating its entire operation to 333 River St., which used to house Grossman’s Bargain Outlet. The company will employ 10 people.
n Jeweled Cross Company LLC of North Attleboro is moving to a 20,000-square-foot building at 811 Park East Drive, formerly home of LSI Graphics. Jeweled Cross, which employs 25 people, makes crucifixes and other spiritual jewelry.
n A new venture, Iron Rock Mills, will purchase and retrofit the old Woonsocket Sponging Co. on Ricard Street, a small brick mill behind Woonsocket High School and one of the last textile finishing companies in the city. Iron Rock’s lead entrepreneur is Michael Dubois, who will use the building to manufacture and distribute restaurant furniture, including fixtures to support the seven-restaurant Doherty-Sullivan group. The company expects to hire 6-10 people.
The good economic news was announced amid much fanfare by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt during a press briefing in Harris Hall yesterday morning. Among those on hand in the packed hall were principals of the new companies. None spoke publicly, but in private interviews, they gave most of the credit to the mayor for luring them to the city.
“The mayor made it a little easier for us to get the permitting process in place, which isn’t an easy task,” said Donald Budnick, president of Ardent Displays.
Budnick said his company is purchasing the 122,000-square-foot Walmart building and expects to sink another half-million dollars into retrofitting it for manufacturing. If all goes according to plan, he said the East Woonsocket facility will be up and running by January.
Similarly, David Angelo, CEO of Atlas Products and a resident of Lincoln, couldn’t say enough about how hard Baldelli-Hunt worked to clear a path for the company to relocate to the old Bargain Outlet.
“She extended herself beyond the call of duty,” said Angelo. “She said she would do whatever it takes, and she did.”
The mayor was clearly flattered to hear what the CEOs were saying about her role, since “I know how much effort I’ve been putting into it.” She said Special Projects Manager Joel Mathews and Planning Director N. David Bouley all deserve credit, too, since “We work as a team.”
Upon taking office, the mayor abolished the position of economic development director, pledging to fulfill the duties of the position herself. Some questioned the move, but yesterday she sounded like the business-booster on the 2013 campaign trail. She talked about Woonsocket’s strategic geography inside the golden triangle of Worcester, Boston and Providence, and even proclaimed purple the city’s official hue, saying it evokes the energy and stability that should be the hallmarks of her administration.
Of course, the mayor and members of her staff were bedecked in various shades of purple, and Harris Hall was festooned with balloons the color of grape soda.
“Woonsocket is open for business,” the mayor said, addressing a packed Harris Hall. “Welcome.”
The mayor said she was particularly pleased that she was able to persuade multiple businesses from other states to set up shop in Woonsocket. She said she was also heartened by the prospect of bringing new life to the Walmart building, a lynchpin of the city’s once-thriving retail strip. Walmart’s demise at the site has been blamed for triggering a domino-effect among other big-box merchandisers on Diamond Hill Road, but Baldelli-Hunt said she hopes that restoring the building to active use will bring back some economic vitality to the area.
Scott Gibbs, president of the Economic Development Foundation of Rhode Island – developer of Highland Corporate Park – said the transformation of Walmart from retail to manufacturing space may offer a clue about the future of Diamond Hill Road. The shift jibes with “a new vision” for rejuvenating the tired retail zone that’s supported by prevailing trends in real estate, including an oversupply of retail space.
“It’s a sign of the times,” he said. “There are good opportunities here to reposition big box retail stores into mixed uses.”
Baldelli-Hunt said she was also happy to see the long-idle Bargain Outlet restored to productive use, because River Street is an area of the city marked by underutilized and empty buildings. One big change in the area was the recent relocation of The Plastics Group to 84 Fairmount St., an old textile mill that had lain vacant for years. Now, with the arrival of Atlas Products, she said, it’s increasingly likely that other companies will look more favorably upon the neighborhood as an opportunity for investment.
Though the four new arrivals represent a combined workforce of roughly 100, it appears the relocations will result in the creation of perhaps 30 new positions in all. Budnick, for example, says many of his workers can operate from dual locations, but he still anticipates creating about 10 new jobs. Angelo, on the other hand, says Atlas is shutting down completely in Fall River and doesn’t expect the existing workforce will look upon the commute to Woonsocket as feasible, so he’ll need to replace about 10 people.
Most of Jeweled Cross’s workers are expected to stay with the company, which is moving just a few miles from its existing location.
In addition to the four companies, the mayor announced that two smaller ventures will commence operations soon in other buildings.
In a partnership with NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, Eric and Bethany Marsland will resurrect the 1920s Champ’s Diner. The Woonsocket couple currently operates Gourmet Pizza & Grill in Milford, which they’re shutting down to jump-start Champ’s, according to NeighborWorks.
The dining car, long a fixture on Park Avenue, was uprooted to make way for new construction in the 1980s and appeared to have been lost to the ages.
A few years ago, however, Joseph Garlick, executive director of NeighborWorks, discovered the dining car sitting in a Providence junkyard and eventually managed to take possession of it.
When NeighborWorks built a new mixed-use plaza at 719 Front St., the dining car was affixed to it as a sort of anchor store. NeighborWorks had been searching for one or more individuals to operate the dining car as a going business ever since.
Also, the mayor said a vacant building at 480 Diamond Hill Road, previously occupied by Traveling Gourmet, will be taken over by a new heating and ventilation company, Modern Mechanical.
The announcement marked the first of two press briefings the mayor scheduled this week to call attention to progress on the economic development front.
Another is scheduled for tomorrow to call attention to four other businesses that have embarked on new construction projects.
“I would like to personally thank the principals of the entities who have chosen to locate their businesses in Woonsocket,” the mayor said. “My team and I look forward to continuing our work in attracting additional businesses both small and large to Woonsocket. We will continue to encourage development and promote a positive business environment.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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Mayor announces new businesses coming to Woonsocket

Aldermen discuss streets, sidewalks

The Russellville City Council’s Finance Committee discussed funding three items from the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) during its Tuesday meeting — paving streets, the Reasoner Lane extension and fixing some sidewalks, particularly on North Phoenix Avenue.

The committee has earmarked $500,000 for overlay of city streets, but Mayor Bill Eaton said it may be awhile before any overlay is done. That’s because there’s so much overlay and renovations being done through the Arkansas River Valley on Interstate 40 by the primary company who does overlay — Blackstone Construction Co.

Eaton told the council representatives from Arkansas Tech University have encouraged the city to move forward with a design for Reasoner Lane’s proposed extension to State Highway 124. This drew some questions and criticism from Aldermen Richard Harris and Martin Irwin. Harris said he was struggling with the idea of building a street on private property.

“Can we get an idea of what Arkansas Tech is going to do with the property?” he asked.

Mark Tripp said he understood the aldermen’s concerns, but the extension of Reasoner Lane boils down to another positive partnership with Arkansas Tech University. Fire Station No. 3 was built on land leased from ATU and after years of discussion, the extension of Phoenix Avenue became a reality.

“ATU and the city need each other,” Tripp explained. “What is good for Arkansas Tech is good for the city, and what is good for the city is good for Arkansas Tech.”

Irwin said if ATU’s purpose is to develop student housing south of the street, then that would change his opinion. If the purpose was to develop between north of the street and Interstate 40, then that would make his view a little different.

“I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Tripp. I think that Russellville, Arkansas and Arkansas Tech ought to be synonymous with one another. It matters to me what the intent for development is. I’d just like to know what their intentions are.”

Kurt Jones — who attended his first meeting as new director of Public Works — pointed out that the project was included in the city’s CIP plan because it would relieve congestion from other downtown roadways.

“ATU officials have asked the city to configure the new road in such a way that it will allow for development, whether the land is conveyed through a lease or right-of-way,” he said. “We all know at this point that they have some plans to develop it, whether it’s divide the lots and sell them off or actually build apartments or whatever.

“There are other locations — Russell Road is a perfect example; it went through land that was undeveloped. The bottom line from the city’s standpoint is that there needs to be some kind of connection running along that interstate back to 124 to relieve some of the congestion at Harrell Drive.”

Harris said he would meet with Jones before next Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting, where the Reasoner Lane extension will be discussed further.

Eaton said the issue has been discussed since the 1990s, and is not about the present but the future.

“This is not something that was dreamed up in the last year or so,” the mayor said. “I just know this will be another option that we don’t have right now for connectivity that we can provide. It may not happen next year. Look what happened down here on Parkway. People said that was dumbest thing they had seen in their life. They couldn’t imagine anybody driving on Parkway.

“But what’s the second-most used street in town? Parkway. What’s happened on Parkway? Development. What happens with that development? It puts taxes in the city coffers so we can build other streets and hopefully connect things for the next generation — not you and me. Down the road, it will be a tremendous benefit.”

Another issue the city must tackle has to do with fixing downtown sidewalks to improve their connectivity for the growing number of people who use regular and motorized wheelchairs in the city. The mayor pointed out that is their only form of transportation and they are not getting served by the city.

“We’ve got people that cannot go from an area west of El Paso to the east side of Arkansas Avenue,” Eaton explained. “People have called me and said the only access is to go through Arkansas Tech, across Arkansas Avenue, and there is not a wheelchair-accessible point. They can’t do their business, unless they go back through Arkansas Tech. If we don’t get some sidewalks and stuff that way, we’re really missing the boat.”

The committee also agreed that work on refurbishing Cedar Street — which will lead to The Landing convention center site north of I-40 — could be done by city employees.

Look for more from Tuesday’s meeting in a future edition of The Courier.

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Aldermen discuss streets, sidewalks