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Merchandise Mart Attracts Tech Start-Ups in Chicago

I’ve mentioned this, at least in passing, and maybe only on Twitter, but the Merchandise Mart is now home to several tech businesses, as is the entire area. Enough of a trend that the stately New York Times noticed:

Don't Pretend Nothing Happened On that Day
Don’t Pretend Nothing Happened On that Day

I’ve mentioned this, at least in passing, and maybe only on Twitter, but the Merchandise Mart is now home to several tech businesses, as is the entire area. Enough of a trend that the stately New York Times noticed:

Once a dormant area of empty warehouses, the River North section of Chicago has evolved into a nexus of dining, night life and, most recently, an aspiring rival to Silicon Valley. Its 45 square blocks are home to the headquarters of Groupon, the Chicago offices of Google and several hundred technology start-ups.

Now River North’s digital transformation is extending to one of the neighborhood’s most storied — and decidedly low-tech — commercial addresses. The Merchandise Mart, a Depression-era behemoth of limestone, concrete and steel that has long been synonymous with fabric bolts and furniture, is becoming a destination for the city’s digital set.

“River North as an area has become very tech-savvy and very tech-cool,” said Todd O’Hara, founder and chief executive of Toodalu, an app-building start-up that moved into the building this year. “The Merchandise Mart is definitely kind of the pinnacle of all of it because of everyone coming in.”

The biggest newcomer, Motorola Mobility, plans to relocate its headquarters from the suburb of Libertyville to four floors of the mart next year, as well as take up a big chunk of the building’s roof space for entertaining and group events.

It is the third major technology company to sign a lease with the mart since December, and 175 or so small tech businesses like Toodalu sublet space.

(click here to continue reading Merchandise Mart in Chicago Attracts Tech Start-Ups – NYTimes.com.)

I’d include the nearby West Loop area too, there are plenty of examples there too – Threadless and so on. I think it’s cool, since for the most part, tech businesses are happy with industrial-esque spaces with exposed brick and mechanicals. In other words, they are not moving in and destroying every building in their wake to build cookie-cutter WalMarts and Targets, or bland corporate HQ. Schafer Condon Carter even restored a beautiful old wreck of a building on W. Madison.1 

Streaking Home
Streaking Home

And the Merchandise Mart, while a beautiful building on the outside, does need a little bit of modernization, at least from what I’ve seen of the interior.

The new tenants also cite the proximity of commuter rail lines, the abundance of parking, bike locker storage — and the energy around the River North neighborhood. According to BuiltInChicago.org, a Web site dedicated to the tech sector, the area had nearly 7,500 tech jobs as of last month.

“This is, like, the hottest place in the city right now,” said Kevin Willer, the chief executive of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, which manages 1871, a nonprofit digital hub that provides space to start-ups in the mart.

That hub has helped convert the 12th floor into a lively area of curving sofas and people on Razor scooters, but even the mart’s new fans say the aging giant remains a place largely associated with “a lot of dark, dreary rooms,” as Mr. O’Hara, the Toodalu founder, said.

Opened in 1930 by Marshall Field & Company, now defunct, the mart had been owned by the Kennedy family under Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises for more than a half century before being sold to Vornado in 1998. With 4.2 million gross square feet, it is among the largest commercial buildings in the world.

The recent influx of tech tenants has brought stark change. The designers of the tech offices have been allowed to gut and renovate spaces. (In the process, some historical gems, like a metal and brick fire door found at 1871, were left to meld with the newly designed areas.) The mart is installing a distributed-antenna system, to be finished by year-end, which will improve cellphone reception and wireless connectivity throughout the building.

Some of the tech companies are configuring their new spaces with a hopeful eye to the future.

Razorfish, the digital marketing and advertising company owned by Publicis, consolidated its disparate Chicago offices into the mart’s 12th floor nearly a year ago, installing conference tables of reclaimed wood and a keg refrigerator with two rotating beers on draft.

Razorfish hired about 100 more people since opening its Chicago office, which was built for a capacity of 400, according to Lori Schram, the company’s facilities manager, and plans to expand its space within the mart.

And 1871, whose name alludes to the year of the great Chicago fire and the innovation that happened during the rebuilding of the city, has so far accepted 175 companies out of 600 applications for space, Mr. Willer said. Tenants of 1871 pay monthly rent for either shared or reserved space and qualify for seminars, tech events and access to venture capital firms and angel investors in the hub.

and that’s a good excuse as any to show a few more of my favorite photos taken in the general area…

 Merchandise Mart Reflects

Merchandise Mart Reflects

Easist Thing I Ever Did
Easiest Thing I Ever Did

Dusk in River North
Dusk in River North

Caresses of Light
Caresses of Light

Sometimes The Sky Is Too Bright
Sometimes The Sky Is Too Bright

Meditation Upon a River
Meditation Upon a River

Destinations
Destinations

Fall Nocturne
Fall Nocturne

More of my photos of the Merchandise Mart, of River North, of Wolf Point

Footnotes:
  1. though SCC is not a tech company, but an ad agency. Close enough. []

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