Chicago Is Converting Historic Downtown Work Spaces Into Housing

Chicago Is Converting Historic Downtown Work Spaces Into Housing

A new project could set a precedent for other cities exploring large-scale office-to-residential conversions amid a housing crisis.
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In Chicago, the office-to-residential conversion movement is underway. Four former downtown office buildings will become mixed-use, mixed-income residential properties in an initiative called LaSalle Street Reimagined.

Office-to-residential conversions bring a mixed-bag of opportunity and challenges. They could yield a two-birds-one-stone solution for cities facing housing shortages and a glut of vacant commercial properties, but the conversion process presents design challenges that restrict how offices can be updated.

When pandemic lockdowns eased and workers began returning to downtown offices, many found Chicago’s Loop eerily empty. In the LaSalle Street corridor, the city’s art deco–adorned financial district, the vibe was ghostly. Even before the pandemic, tenants operating in the historic buildings had begun restructuring or downsizing, abandoning their LaSalle offices; some, like BMO Harris and Bank of America, had already planned to move into brand new, class-A facilities elsewhere

When the pandemic hit, abandonment continued, and by 2024, the vacancy rate reached 25 percent, according to Chicago Magazine. Former mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that her administration was exploring using tax dollars to support revitalizing the corridor into a vibrant live-work neighborhood.

Though housing advocates were skeptical that Mayor Brandon Johnson, elected in 2023, would continue to support the plan, he announced in April that the city would use $151.2 million in tax increment financing dollars to turn about 1.25 million square feet of former commercial space into 1,000 homes. Architects at Lamar Johnson Collaborative recently released renderings for 208 S LaSalle—a 22-story Classical Revival building built in 1914 for the Continental and Commercial National Bank—which will create 226 apartments plus amenities across five floors.

These units will add to downtown Chicago’s growth as a residential neighborhood; According to Bloomberg, the Loop’s residential population grew by nine percent between 2020 and 2023. At a recent Tiny Homes conference, Nneka Onwuzurik, first deputy of business and neighborhood development, noted in a speech to attendees that LaSalle Reimagined also adds a much needed 300 affordable units to the downtown district’s existing nine subsidized units. 

Related reading:

How Feasible Is It to Turn Office Buildings Into Apartments?

Top image: tunart/Getty Images


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