With past experience in the offices of the Illinois Attorney General and in Chicago’s Corporation Counsel, Jack George has helped to mold Chicago. Now a partner with Akerman, he is still shaping the city, though in more concrete terms, bringing zoning and legal consideration to numerous blockbuster developments.
His notable work includes advising on Vista Tower’s complex land entitlements approval process and representing Friedman Properties in their scheme to add a new hotel to the landmark Reid Murdoch Building. He also advised Riverside Investment & Development and Howard Hughes Corp. in their respective developments of 150 North Riverside and 110 North Wacker Drive, among many other projects.
George will be among the 50+ scheduled speakers at the 18th Annual Commercial Real Estate Forecast Conference on January 9th. Before he delivers some of his expertise there, we sat down with him to gauge the landscape of real estate law in Chicago.
You’ve worked on a number of high-profile projects in Chicago, from 150 Riverside to 110 Wacker to Vista Tower. Are there a common set of legal issues that crop up with projects like these?
The primary legal issue is the zoning and the floor area ratio, how much FAR you’re going to be able to utilize in these projects. Are we going to buy additional FAR and if so, how much? In the 42nd Ward you don’t really upzone property—most of these lots are DX-12 or DX-16, which is the highest zoning category we have. If you have a DX-16 lot, you can buy as much FAR as you want. That’s what we did with 110 North Wacker—we bought additional FAR there, which we paid a lot of money for, but that allowed us to build a bigger and more substantial building.
Traffic issues are also very important. Because of where those three projects are located, you have to figure out a way to handle the traffic so that it doesn’t have an adverse impact on the other buildings in the area. With 150 Riverside we don’t have many cars on site there at all because of the location of the Metra tracks below the building and we tried to reduce the amount of parking as much as possible there. The same is true with 110 North Wacker, but with Vista we do have parking. It was a complicated situation as most of the traffic is below grade, so we worked very hard with our traffic engineers and the city of Chicago Department of Transportation to provide the number of parking spaces needed by the development without impacting the road system near Lakeshore East.
Open space and access by the public are also important. When you put up these tall buildings with a lot of people working or living in them, there has to be some green space for the people to enjoy. The city isn’t focused so much on the height of the buildings; they are concerned about the podium of the building and the green space, how it looks and how it will be used by the people.
What all these projects have in common is the extensive dealing with the city of Chicago and the community. On each one of these projects, I had one or two community hearings to get the input of the community and the alderman. In all these cases that is Alderman Riley of the 42nd Ward. He’s insistent upon vetting projects with the community and hearing what they have to say before he will give any support for any project. And it can be a beneficial process. Sometimes we hear things that we hadn’t considered ourselves.
With new leadership in City Hall and in Springfield, do you expect anything different headed to the realm of real estate law, or is change here rather gradual?
We’re very fortunate in the city of Chicago. The people that I deal with in land use, zoning and building are very competent, they work very hard and they do a good job. That’s not going to change. There is a new Planning Commissioner. I’ve only met him a couple of times, but he seems dedicated to really looking at the design of buildings.
One of the changes stemming from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign promises is there is going to be much more of an emphasis in the city now on affordable housing and building affordable housing units in the neighborhoods where it hadn’t been done previously, which is a very good thing. I think changes will be gradual. Whenever a new mayor comes into office and employs a new plan commissioner, they’re going to have some different ideas as to how they want the urban landscape to be developed. She seems to be pretty dedicated to it, as does Maurice Cox.
One of the changes coming from Springfield is the new cannabis legislation. The state put through this major legislation and then the city passed its own ordinances regarding how and where cannabis dispensaries will operate. We’re going to see real democracy in action as we have hearings on special uses and people come forward to give their views as to whether or not this is something that they want in their community.
For the hotel at 330 N. Clark, you had landmark issues to wrangle with as the site is attached to the Reid Murdoch Building. What sorts of challenges do landmarking bring and are they enough to drive some developers away from certain projects?
This city has a great heritage and those buildings that have historical or architectural significance should be protected by landmarking. I think that when developers see a landmark building or district, they aren’t scared off by that. Good developers know how to build around these issues and figure out a way to preserve what needs preserving. It’s an additional review process but it’s worth it to try and preserve these sites so that future generations can benefit from them.
For example, we worked on the proposal to build on top of the Union Station. The architectural community gave their disapproval and the developer listened, deciding to preserve the head house and a lot of the other aspects of Union Station. Good developers don’t get scared off; they figure out a way to work around it. Sure, it’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that can be met.
How has Chicago real estate law transformed over the course of your career?
I’ve been doing this for an awfully long time. To me, there’s been change and it’s really been a change for the better. Our development process is better now, and the community engagement process is better. We now recognize that there is an obligation on the part of the developer to go to the community, listen to what they have to say and find out how it’s impacting their neighborhood. The old days of trying to move something along without doing that are gone. When a community has a chance to give input, they have some ownership of the building once it is erected.
To hear more from George and approximately 50 other industry experts, sign up now for the Commercial Real Estate Forecast Conference, which will be held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago on January 9th.