CHSO — August 2009
Change Language:
The Radar Realty
Amalie Drury

Even in times like these, Chicago’s Gold Coast keeps living up to its grandiose name. Say what you will about the poodles being wheeled around in strollers and the purported Viagra consumption within a certain one-block radius, but the Gold Coast is undeniably the most established, most manicured, most mansioned, best located neighborhood in the city. “It’s still the place to see and be seen. It still has cachet,” says 45-year resident Marilyn Miglin, the nationally known beauty authority and former president of the Oak Street Council whose name graces an honorary street sign marking the neighborhood’s high-end retail strip. When compared with the Upper East Side, New York City’s bastion of old money and privilege, the Gold Coast stands up to the competition and, from a personality perspective, does it one better.

Proximity to an expanse of urbanized nature? Check. Residents with last names recognizable to the majority of the general public? Check. Private schools, nannies, upper-crust churches?

Check, check, check. And there’s a trump card: the appealing eccentricity—despite the raised eyebrows of some neighbors—of a come-one, come-all attitude that makes it common to see T-shirt-wearing tourists diving into steaks at patio tables alongside visiting celebrities and Chicago’s best-known faces in society and business. Personality? Check.

Like any neighborhood, the Gold Coast is always evolving, but a walking tour of its grid—particularly the area south of Division Street, north of Chicago Avenue and west of Clark Street—reveals a remarkable amount of growth over the past two or three years.  ere are the gleaming curves of several modern new high-rises like the elegant Booth Hansendesigned condos at 30 W. Oak, which are an architectural improvement on the blank, clunky towers constructed in the ’70s (the Newberry Plaza on State Street or the hulking, nondescript condo tower at 2 E. Oak) that anchor the neighborhood in prominent spots.

However, not everyone thinks that 30 W. Oak is a good addition to the neighborhood.

In fact, the condos’ scale is a source of some concern among those who would rather the Gold Coast maintain a more intimate, street-level feel. “I’m afraid if the city continues to allow this type of development, the Gold Coast will look like Gotham—no sunlight peeking through the towers,” says longtime Resident and society fi xture Lynn McMahan.

Another new arrival is the soon-to-open Elysian at 11 E. Walton St., developer David Pisor’s $280 million, 60-story ultraluxury hotel and private residence tower designed by architect Lucien Lagrange in old-world European style. “We’ve been fortunate with our sales,” says Pisor, whose property will sport two upscale restaurants and a Marc Jacobs store. “Only fi ve of 52 residences remain, and we sold two in the past month.” And which of the neighborhood regulars hasn’t held court at least once at the latest lunch spot CONTINUED Of choice, Fred’s restaurant at the top of the glam new Barneys New York building on the corner of Rush and Oak? “I think our restaurant has already become the go-to place in the neighborhood,” says Cindy Schwartz, Barneys VP and manager of the Chicago store for 18 years. “It’s destined to become a classic—just like Gibsons, Hugo’s and Pane Caldo.” One of the most recognizable business owners in the area, Steve Lombardo, (now in his 20th year as owner of Rush Street trio Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Hugo’s Frog Bar and LuxBar), doesn’t mind the newcomers. In fact, he welcomes the increased foot traffic being lured to the area. “at’s the beauty of this neighborhood,” he says. “Opportunities are available for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit.” Among those not afraid to make waves in a difficult business climate is Michael Bisbee, co-owner of River North nightspots Manor and RiNo.

Bisbee often found himself driving by the abandoned building that once housed Cactus and Melvin B’s, both of which used to pack their outdoor patios with casual crowds that skewed younger than the clientele at the surrounding steakhouses. After weeks of initially unreturned phone calls and e-mails in early 2009, Bisbee negotiated a purchase of the location, where his Cedar Hotel bar concept opened earlier this month. “We met with all of our Gold Coast neighbors, and we got a warm response,” he says. “ey’re excited something’s finally opening in the space, and we’re honored to be surrounded by the great restaurant groups in the area.” Of all the new additions to the hood, Paul Vranas, founder of residential real estate firm Vranas Properties (with offices at State and Elm) is most enthused about the Cedar Hotel. “It’s refreshing to have a relaxed environment for outdoor cocktails,” he says. But like many others in the industry, he’s still wondering what will become of a few high-profile vacancies. “ere are several commercial buildings sitting unused in prime locations,” he says. Gabrielle Weisberg, a Realtor with Prudential Preferred on Michigan Avenue and a member of the Gold Coast Neighbors Association, also expresses alarm about the high number of empty storefronts. “Developers haven’t been able to get the proper equity and debt they need to move forward with planned projects,” she says.

e hottest topics churning through the Gold Coast real estate rumor mill are the shuttered Esquire movie theater on Oak Street and the former Barneys building, still an appealing structure but now darkened and dwarfed by its new big brother. Luxury leather goods brand Hermès (currently at 110 E. Oak St.) is a confirmed new tenant in the old Barneys space, but when it moves in, it will occupy just 4,600 square feet of retail space, leaving a huge amount of legroom for as-yetto- be-named neighbors. Meanwhile, the fate of the beloved Esquire is still largely unknown (it will likely be used in a mixed commercial and retail capacity), with its papered windows sporting only a handwritten sign with two “in case of emergency” phone numbers. Calls to the building’s owner, Mark Hunt of M Development LLC, which purchased the building in 2002, were not returned.

Last month, Gold Coast gossip reached a fever pitch after an announcement in Crain’s Chicago Business that hotshot hotelier Ian Schrager—whose boutique hotels are known around the world as the epitome of urban sophistication—is working on a deal to purchase State Street’s Ambassador East hotel and its famed Pump Room restaurant, once the stomping grounds of stars like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. If completed, the sale could mean a hip future for a property steeped in glamorous tradition—but definitely in need of a facelift.

Present and future nips and tucks aside, residents who have watched restaurants and retailers come and go say the charm of the Gold Coast lies more in its essence than its swank veneer. “Every time I step out of my building, I know I’ll run into someone I know or exchange a smile with someone I see every day,” says Sean Eshaghy, part of a wave of twentysomethings now making their mark on the hood. “I’ve met some wonderful people in this area, and I’ll probably be having nightcaps at the Drake and Butch McGuire’s until the day I die.” And what does the Gold Coast still need? Among requests for more upscale children’s stores, more trees, an overhaul of the neighborhood’s underpasses leading to the lakefront and grousing about the exasperatingly inconvenient new parking pay boxes, one very specific request comes from resident McMahan. “Berry Chill, please!” she says. “Everyone I know wants one within walking distance of our homes.”