Downtown Chicago, empty and quiet during COVID pandemic, tries to imagine its future

CHICAGO (WLS) -- If you stroll Madison Street in downtown Chicago, you'll see how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the heart of the city when it comes to office space, retail stores and restaurants.

"This is the right place to be," said lawyer David R. Brown, office managing partner at Nixon Peabody LLP. "We think having the energy of a downtown hub is irreplaceable for our business."

While some raise questions about the city's future, Nixon Peabody is doubling down, renewing its lease for 15 years at 70 West Madison, a 57-story office building that has recently upgraded its fitness center, lobby and elevators to attract tenants.

Once it's safe to do so, Brown said the company is eager to have 140 employees, including 90 lawyers, return to their downtown office. The company's new lease means renovating the 51st, 52nd and 53rd floors.

"We're just really excited to have all of our people together in one place - a place we can invite our clients in, our employees, our lawyers and other staff," Brown said.

Nixon Peabody is making a long-term commitment to downtown, Brown said. But some businesses are pulling out, and some companies are not renewing leases or choosing to keep their staffs remote long-term.

Right now, Chicago has a record amount of vacant office space. CBRE, a global commercial real estate firm, reports 15.5% of the office space downtown is vacant. By the end of 2022, the company forecasts vacancies can range from 18%, which is the best-case scenario, up to 20%, meaning one-fifth of the city's office space could be empty.

If you leave 70 West Madison and walk down the block, you could see the ripple effect vacant office space could have at businesses like Syd Jerome, a men's clothing store.

"If you're not optimistic in the retail business, you're out of business," said Scott Shapiro, owner of Syd Jerome. "It's encouraging to me that I have a loyal customer base; we will get through this, and we will flourish in the end."

Shapiro's father started the family-owned clothing store 63 years ago. The store has relied on loyal customers, businessmen walking by, tourists, suburbanites and anyone catching the trains nearby.

But the bustling downtown foot traffic slowed down during the pandemic, and that's having a financial impact. Shapiro said he's concerned about downtown Chicago's future and what city leaders will do to bring the business district back.

"I look out onto the street and I don't see anybody anymore, and that's what concerns me the most," Shapiro said. "And I can't wait for the day when I see the kind of traffic we used to see."

If you walk across the street from Syd Jerome, you will see signs advertising vacant office and retail space. Storefronts on the street level have windows covered in brown paper, and office suites and the floors above are empty. Just steps away, you also get a feel for the challenges restaurants are experiencing since the business lunch crowd dwindled.

"The way of doing business before is kind of out the door, so now we're thinking of new ways of attracting people to come to the restaurant, come downtown," said Christine Bane, Roanoke Restaurant's sales and marketing director.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, customers dotted the dining room and some lunch on the outdoor patio, but Bane said they are also trying to attract another market now, including brides-to-be.

"We're now focusing on different ways to drum up business, and some of those ways are rehearsal dinners, the micro-weddings that are very popular right now, the bridal showers," she said.

The second floor of the Roanoke Restaurant has space to accommodate 16-250 guests. To get the word out, Bane said they are even holding a wedding-crowd "Influencer Party" in April. The venue hopes to show off its space and menus to potential guests.

For restaurants in the Loop, reinvention may equal survival.

"That dine-in business may not be as robust over the next 12 to 18 months as it has been, so you really need to figure if the customers are not coming to you, how do you go to where the customers are," said David Henkes, a restaurant consultant with Technomic.

Back at 70 West Madison, it's not just the renovation, but also the fitness center, new lobby, and beautiful view that will bring law firm Nixon Peabody back to Chicago's Loop. And of course, Brown said the company is committed to the city as well.

"We all need to do our part to make sure that we return to the vibrancy we know is there," Brown said, "but it's just been covered up the last year."

A pandemic year to reflect on as it shapes the future of downtown Chicago and Madison Street.
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