Loop to O’Hare in 12 minutes: Elon Musk gets the job

In a bold bet that new technology can deliver a long-time City Hall goal, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has selected tech magnate Elon Musk’s Boring Company to build and operate a super-express transit system between downtown and O’Hare International Airport.

The promised project: A closed-loop pair of tunnels from Block 37 in the central Loop to the airport that would whisk passengers to their flights in 12 minutes, using autonomous pod-like vehicles, or electric skates, that would depart as frequently as every 30 seconds and carry up to 16 passengers and their luggage. (Below, a conceptual video of the autonomous vehicles.)

Musk will be in Chicago on Thursday for a formal announcement.

The promised cost: Fares of no more than half of what a taxi or rideshare costs today—that works out to less than $25—with Musk’s company financing what insiders say will be the $500 million to $1 billion cost without any taxpayer subsidy.

“We think we have a terrific project that will be transformative to the city and make it stand out in the global economy,” Deputy Mayor Robert Rivkin, who has been the city’s point person on the project, said in a phone interview late today. Closely connecting “Chicago’s twin economic engines,” downtown and O’Hare, can only help the city’s economy, he added.

If all goes as it should, Rivkin said, construction work could begin next year with actual service in operation around 2022.

“Dallas and Atlanta and New York will look at this and be sorry they didn’t have it,” said Emanuel in a separate interview. “It’s going to give the city a huge competitive leg up.”

Mayors back as far as Jane Byrne in the early 1980s have dreamed of a super-fast O’Hare connection that would beat the hour or more it can take to drive or take the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line to the airfield. None got very far—because of the cost, the shortage of money for other needed transit projects, and basic logistics: the Blue Line has too many stations and sharp curves and the like to provide truly fast service.

Emanuel started the process over, seeking public bids and eventually settling on two finalists: Boring and a consortium of other firms that proposed to run a conventional high-speed train link from a downtown station to O’Hare, using available railroad right-of-way.

Rivkin said city rules prevent him from saying why the second group lost. But insiders say its plan ran into the same problems as the previous Blue Line proposals: cost (likely in the billions of dollars) and the length of time a trip would take.

Musk’s proposal faces potential technical problems but provides a sort of new-generation workaround.

Boring Company has developed what it says is faster drilling technology that allows it to create tunnels at least 90 percent below the cost of conventional methods. That advantage, it says, allows it to use one of the few available transit routes left in crowded big cities: underground, or “3D,” as the company puts it on its website.

Musk, the founder of Space X and Tesla Motors, has high credibility in the tech world for delivering on ideas that have stymied others (though Wall Street is disappointed in Tesla, to say the least). And Boring’s technology is good enough that officials in Los Angeles and Baltimore recently have signed off on initial projects that could lead to much bigger efforts, such as a vacuum tube “hyperloop” from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and eventually New York.

The Chicago project generally would use already existing “electric skate” technology, though it would link them together in a form and length that is unique to this country. The direct connection via a dedicated tunnel would allow those vehicles to accelerate to over 100 miles per hour, according to the city and Boring, slashing the time on the 17-mile O’Hare run. And the project would use the long-mothballed CTA “superstation” under Block 37 as a terminal, with the end point located near the CTA’s Blue Line terminus close to O’Hare terminals but outside of the airport’s security perimeter.

Another conceptual rendering from the Boring Company website

Other big savings come from the fact that the vehicles would be automated, reducing labor costs.

Of course, for any of this to work, Boring’s drilling technology has to work, the firm needs to attract investment capital and the project needs to clear a series of legal and environmental hurdles.

Rivkin said the city hopes to minimize the land-use issues by locating the two tunnels—one inbound, the other outbound—beneath existing government-owned right-of-way areas, such as the Kennedy Expressway or under streets that run diagonally through the Northwest Side, including Elston and Milwaukee avenues. He said Boring might need to acquire a few easements under private property, say for ventilation or to smooth the route’s course, but said the city is prepared to use its powers of eminent domain if need be.

A lease deal will need to be struck with the CTA to use its Block 37 station, and Rivkin said he “expects” that Boring will pay for usage. But I wouldn’t expect huge payments, given that the station—now essentially an unfinished basement—has been unused for a generation.

The project will require City Council and federal environmental approval. Rivkin said he thinks a lengthy environmental impact statement will not be needed, but Boring’s plans in L.A. have drawn some protests from environmental groups there.

What would happen to the dirt removed for tunnels? (Thirty-four miles of dirt and rock from 14-foot-wide tunnels is a lot of dirt.) Boring says it’s considering making bricks from the material, which could be used in low-income housing programs.

Rivkin said those details, as well as questions such as whether the tunnels would convert to city ownership at some time, will be resolved in upcoming negotiations. He hopes to have a final contract deal by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, as former Deputy Mayor Steve Koch puts it—Koch and Rivkin went to California last year to visit with Musk and see the prototype tunnel—”This is a very smart way to dry to do something that we otherwise couldn’t do.” And if it’s a roll of the dice, “it’s a roll of somebody else’s dice.”

Plan a Staycation! You need not leave downtown to camp in style this summer.

While glamping—a popularized term for glamorous camping—is typically associated with luxurious hotel-like accommodations in a remote wilderness setting, one Chicago hotel is trying out the concept in the heart of the city’s densely populated downtown.

This summer, The Gwen Chicago will provide adventurous (and well-heeled) guests a unique opportunity to rough it in style in a dome-shaped tent perched at the edge of the Michigan Avenue building’s 16th-floor terrace. Decorated with a Boho-chic vibe, the space is illuminated by lamps and gilded lanterns and includes a queen-sized bed with custom linens and throw pillows.

Instead of mountains or towering trees, this one-of-a-kind glamp site is surrounded by some of Chicago’s most iconic architecture including the neo-gothic Tribune Tower and the famous skyscraper formerly known as the John Hancock Center. The 1,000-square-foot terrace boasts a fire pit for fixing s’mores and is attached to the hotel’s Gwen Lux presidential suite, which is also included in the package.

“We’re excited to be first establishment to offer this type of experience in an urban environment,” Marcus Cornelious, director of sales and marketing at The Gwen, told Curbed. “Guests have access to this unique designer tent as well as the six-person suite and hotel’s best amenities and services.”

Pricing is subject to fluctuations so Cornelious recommends that would-be glampers call ahead for an exact quote. That being said, guests can expect to spend roughly $5,500 per night for the experience. The price includes round-trip airport transportation, the s’mores spread, and a personal butler service.

The Gwen Chicago plans to offer its summer glamping package through September 30.



Amazon ‘impressed’ with Chicago’s HQ2 bid

Amazon officials were “impressed” with Chicago’s bid to land the company’s second headquarters, according to email messages from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s personal account obtained by the Chicago Tribune.

Amazon’s senior vice president of corporate affairs Jay Carney sent Emanuel a message on the same day the company announced its list of 20 locations remaining in the running, the Tribune reported.

“Rahm — Assume you saw our news. We look forward to diving in deeper on Chicago’s proposal,” Carney wrote. “As I think I mentioned before, everyone here was impressed with the proposal your team put together. Many thanks, Jay.”

Carney and Emanuel worked together in former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Is Chicago Experiencing a Historic Preservation Crisis?

In the West Loop, excavators can still be seen at the site of what was just a few weeks ago a rare industrial building designed by D. H. Burnham & Company, the storied firm led by Daniel Burnham, the legendary Chicago city planner and lead architect for the 1893 World’s Fair. Built over 100 years ago, the three-story masonry building at 1217-1227 W. Washington Boulevard was unceremoniously demolished in April, with its elaborate ornamentation and glazed brick reduced to a pile of rubble.

Developers often harken back to Burnham’s famous “make no little plans” screed when unveiling new proposals for Chicago, but what are Burnham’s words worth when little to no value is attached to the buildings crafted by his firm? Despite the 2015 passage of a new landmark district in the area to protect buildings exactly like this one, the property somehow slipped through the cracks.

The West Loop is not alone however, as several other Chicago communities have seen one-of-a-kind neighborhood buildings demolished without much warning or fanfare this year.

Englewood’s South Side Masonic Temple, a broad-shouldered red brick structure with a near-identical twin in Logan Square, was abruptly razed in January, while buildings of historic nature in Humboldt Park, Edgewater, and along the North Branch have also been lost in recent months. Ongoing preservation battles have sprouted in Logan Square to ensure the future of a former synagogue and in Little Village, an effort to save the shuttered Crawford Station designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White is running out of steam and time.

The majority of these buildings were noted as being either architecturally or culturally significant in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS), a comprehensive review and tally of historic buildings completed and published by the city in the mid-’90s. While a designation in the survey does not protect buildings from demolition, there are special privileges granted for particularly sensitive ones—such as a 90-day hold on demolition permits—to allow the city and preservationists to further investigate a structure’s historic characteristics and contributions.

The Historic Resources Survey grants a color designation for highlighted buildings, from green, signaling an entry of note, to orange and red, indicating the most significant structures. According to city records of where these more sensitive orange- and red-rated buildings have been demolished, wards that are seeing a major uptick in new development are also ones that are witnessing sometimes dramatic losses in their historic building stock.

Since 2013, there have been 165 entries made in the city’s demolition delay hold list, but not all of the structures listed have been demolished as some applications were eventually withdrawn or tabled. In addition, many of the demolition applications submitted this year are still pending release. However, the wards that have witnessed the most demolition of orange- and red-rated buildings cover neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park, Lakeview, the West Loop, and Logan Square.

The data helps to illustrate that Chicago’s neighborhoods are experiencing a true preservation crisis, says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. Despite the 90-day hold on demolition permits for buildings determined to be historic by the city, Miller says that some city council members have used aldermanic prerogative to fast-track the eventual destruction of significant structures. But more often than not, Miller says that communities and preservation advocates simply do not have enough time to line up a buyer or produce a plan for adaptive reuse when demolition threats surface.

“While three months may seem like an ample amount of time, we find that we’re often scrambling to find stewards for these buildings,” Miller says. “There are some structures that require a lot of conversation and attention—how do you do all of that in the middle of winter and in a three month time?”

Miller also suggests that new development and preservation don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but says that the Chicago Historic Resources Survey exists as a tool to help plan for a community’s future. However, neighborhood preservation advocates have been stretched beyond capacity in recent years, overburdened by frequent demolitions, says Miller.

“I think we’ve experienced that crisis for a number of years now, but the idea of working within the framework of historic buildings and investing in them really does create a more complex, more beautiful idea that forces one to go back to the drawing board to get things right.”

Homeownership continues to trend upward

The homeownership rate in the U.S. is trending upward, retaining the same 64.2 percent rate in the first quarter of 2018 as the last quarter of 2017, according to the Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancy Survey (HVS).

The current rate is recovering after reaching a cycle low of 62.9 percent during the second quarter of 2016. The homeownership rate reached a high in 2004 with a rate of 69.2 percent — compared to that high, the current rate is down 5 percent.

Year-over year, homeownership among all age demographics under 55 increased. The number of millennials who are homeowners increased from 34.3 percent to 35.3 percent but is still down from 36 percent in the last quarter of 2017.

The homeownership rate of ages 35-44 increased 0.8 percent annually, while those ages 45-54 saw an increase of 0.6 percent.

The non-seasonally-adjusted rate for homeowner vacancies was 1.5 percent, down 0.1 percent from the final quarter of 2017. The national vacancy rate for rentals remained at 7 percent.

HVS data says that homeowner households grew 1.1 million from last year to this year, up to 119.5 million for the first quarter of 2018. The number of homeowner households has been rising since the third quarter of 2015 — compared to the number of renter households — which has been declining since the second quarter of 2017.