The past decade has been an incredible period of change for Chicago’s built environment. The 2010's saw an economic recovery that reshaped the downtown area with corporate headquarter relocated and dozens of glassy high-rise apartment towers.
A number of Chicago neighborhoods experienced unprecedented mini booms, too. Transit-oriented projects catered to a new generation of renters and the city’s obsolete industrial corridors found new life as mixed-use neighborhoods.
Within all of these parallel story lines, which projects stood out above the rest—for better, or for worse? We’ve attempted to answer that question here, with 10 notable new buildings, parks, transportation improvements, and adaptive reuse projects that defined the last decade of change in Chicago. We asked readers to send in their thoughts, and have incorporated some of those nominations as well.
The enormously successful Chicago Riverwalk opened its final segment in 2016. Simply put, the 1.5-mile promenade is one of the biggest stories in urban design and landscape architecture to occur in Chicago over the past decade.
A collaboration between designers at Ross Barney Architects and Sasaki, the versatile space serves as a respite from the hustle and bustle of the Loop. It acts as a park for the downtown area, a tourist attraction, a transit connector, and a retail corridor for the various shops and restaurants that line the waterfront promenade.
The amenity attracts people who live and work downtown as well as visitors. Some of the city’s best architecture is on full display and the rehabilitation of the Chicago River—which was once nothing more than an industrial sewer—is front and center.
“The two biggest downtown developments in the coming decades are the emergence of the river in city life and the conversion of the Loop into more of a residential destination,” wrote one Curbed Chicago reader.
“The Riverwalk helped lay the groundwork for both.”
Chicago welcomed another transformative park during the 2010s: The 606. The former industrial rail line reopened in 2015 as a 2.7-mile elevated trail connecting North Side neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square. Unlike New York’s tourist-clogged High Line, The 606 is used by local Chicagoans as a practical means to travel between neighborhoods and get exercise. As it has grown in popularity, it has become hard to find a real estate listing located within a half-mile of the trail that doesn’t mention proximity to The 606 among its perks.
That popularity, however, has proved to be a double-edged sword for the surrounding neighborhoods, functioning as both a property value booster and an accelerant for rising rents, displacement, and gentrification. Chicago lawmakers even introduced measures to slow the rate of demolitions and conversions of multi-family properties into luxury single-family homes near The 606.
While the last decade saw Chicago’s beloved Cubbies break their 108-year curse with one of the most cathartic World Series wins in the history of baseball, it also included a dramatic transformation of Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood.
A massive renovation project overseen by team owner the Ricketts family brought the 105-year-old ballpark up to contemporary 21st century standards. But some additions—like an enormous video screen in left field—stripped the stadium of some of its nostalgic charms.
Even more substantial were the simultaneous changes to the Wrigleyville neighborhood, typified by projects like the Hotel Zachary, Gallagher Way plaza, and the massive mixed-use Clark and Addison development.
The result: The area is less of a gritty, anachronistic neighborhood and more of sanitized baseball-themed tourist attraction. “RIP Wrigleyville. Welcome to Rickettsville,” wrote the Chicago Reader in 2017.
This project rose from a partially-completed base of a hotel and condominium tower that buckled under the pressure of the Great Recession in 2008. OneEleven represented a turning point in downtown housing when it resumed construction as luxury rentals in 2012. When the high-rise opened in 2014, it embodied the trends of the moment: rental units were king, condos were in time-out, and the latest crop of tenants were content with living in the Loop.
Sure, there were plenty of other downtown rental developments during the same time and the Handel-designed tower probably won’t top anyone’s list of the best architecture to come out of the 2010s, but few projects better symbolized the dramatic rise of luxury, high-amenity rental developments after the condo bust.
Projects like OneEleven helped usher in downtown’s pivot to luxury apartments during the first half of the 2010s. Then, the skyline-altering tower known as NEMA Chicago took the concept a full order of magnitude further when it welcomed its first residents in 2019.
Soaring 896 feet along the southern edge of Grant Park, the 800-unit development is the city’s tallest purely rental building and offers a staggering 70,000 square feet of amenity space. NEMA is also Chicago’s first high-rise by Uruguayan-born starchitect Rafael Viñoly and features a bundled-tube design inspired by the Willis Tower.
Merchandise Mart repositioning
Built in 1930, Chicago’s massive Merchandise Mart isn’t exactly a new development, but its transformation was an important storyline that played out over the past decade. The sprawling Art Deco structure was and still is home to many furniture showrooms and wholesalers, but it underwent a technology-focused renaissance thanks to the establishment of the 1871, a technology and startup incubator, in 2012.
In time, larger companies like Motorola Mobility and Yelp migrated their workforces to the 4 million-square-foot building, attracted by its sprawling floorplates. In 2016, business technology publication Chicago Inno declared the Merchandise Mart the “epicenter of Chicago tech.”
In 2018, the landmark building transformed its massive southern facade into the planet’s largest canvas for projected digital art and dropped its traditional Merchandise Mart name and officially rebranded as “theMART.”
Old Post Office
The success of the Merchandise Mart’s pivot to high-tech offices was, in many ways, a proof of concept for the eventual rehabilitation of Chicago’s long-vacant Old Post Office into newly opened office space that has attracted the likes of Walgreens, Uber, and PepsiCo.
The first half of the 2010s were a tumultuous period of uncertainty for the 1921 Art Deco behemoth while it was under the stewardship of Bill Davies. The late British-born billionaire acquired the property in 2009 and—despite pitching grandiose multi-phase redevelopment plans—did absolutely nothing with it.
Things finally got back on track after developer 601W Companies bought the Post Office in 2016 and started the single largest adaptive reuse project in the country to convert it into office space. The multi-year rehab effort wrapped up as recently as November 2019 as tenants began to move in.
Google’s Fulton Market offices
During the 2010s, Chicago’s Fulton Market District was already ripe for rampant redevelopment given its stock of attractive older warehouse buildings and location just west of the city’s central business district. The floodgates blew wide open in 2015 when Google opened its Chicago headquarters in the former Fulton Market Cold Storage building.
Once the tech titan planted roots in the neighborhood, the toothpaste was out of tube. There was no going back. Dozens of office, hotel, apartment, and restaurant projects flooded the former meatpacking district over the course of the following years, and the boom shows no sign of letting up any time soon. Sure, McDonald’s 2018 move to Fulton Market was also big for the city and neighborhood, but it was Google that blazed the trail.
Morgan CTA stop
The Chicago Transit Authority completed a number of projects during the past decade which deserve mentioning: the Cermak-McCormick Place stop in 2015, the redesigned Washington-Wabash station in 2017, and the revamped 95th Street Red Line train and bus terminal in 2019. But predating all of those improvements was the Morgan stop, which opened in 2012 as the CTA’s first new station to open in the city in 15 years.
The Fulton Market project, which features a contemporary glass and steel design from Ross Barney Architects, can’t take full credit for the area’s transit-oriented development boom. But the Morgan stop is certainly a key catalyst for the area’s vitalization and enjoys growing ridership. At the end of the day, isn’t that what a good transit project is all about?
Maggie Daley Park
After breaking ground in 2012, downtown’s Maggie Daley Park was a welcome addition to Grant Park when it opened in 2015. The 20-acre Park District green space replaced a row of tennis courts and the Daley Bicentennial Plaza with new amenities including climbing walls, multiple playgrounds, mini-golf, and new tennis courts.
The whimsical Michael Van Valkenburgh-designed park may not be as famous as its older Millennium Park neighbor, but you might find it hard to get excited about a regular old ice rink after taking a spin on Maggie Daley’s quarter-mile-long skating ribbon in the winter.