Chicagoans line the Chicago River to celebrate public debut ‘Art on theMART’

On Saturday, Chicagoans got their first taste of Art on theMART, a hard-to-ignore transformation of the city’s famous Merchandise Mart into a 2.5-acre canvas for digital art.

Thousands of onlookers watched from Wacker Drive, the Chicago Riverwalk, neighboring high-rise buildings, powerboats, and kayaks as the projectors were switched on for the first time. The show lasted roughly a half hour and featured works from four artists—Diana Thater, Zheng Chongbin, Jason Salavon, and Jan Tichy. The event concluded with a fireworks display.

Funded by building owner Vornado Realty Trust, the $8 million installation will strictly showcase art with no corporate branding or sponsorship. Vornado has a 30-year agreement with the City of Chicago for Art on theMART, making the installation the largest and longest-running digital art project in the world.

Art on theMART is scheduled to run for up to two hours a night, five days a week (Wednesday through Sunday), March through December. Here are some of the best images and creative angles from Saturday’s spectacular debut.

Developer unveils revised Union Station plan

The boxy glass apartment building atop the headhouse is gone and a 1.5-acre park is new in a revamped plan to redevelop Chicago’s historic Union Station.

Presenting its revised vision to overhaul the transportation hub, developer Riverside Investment & Development showed downtown residents Tuesday night a plan it hopes will win them over after its first proposal three months ago flopped.

The biggest change: The elimination of a 404-unit apartment structure that Riverside and its development partner, Convexity Properties, had proposed to put on top of the historic Union Station headhouse. Instead, Riverside wants to add a “penthouse” level atop the structure and increase the number of planned hotel rooms in the headhouse to 400 from the previously proposed 330.

Another big change is just south of the headhouse, where Riverside initially proposed a 715-foot, 1.5 million-square-foot office building with an attached parking structure. The new version includes a 1.5-acre park along Jackson Boulevard and Clinton Street at the base of the proposed office tower.

The new proposal comes after Riverside and Convexity faced backlash to its first presentation in June. Much of the criticism focused on the crown-like, glass addition atop the neo-classical landmark headhouse, which was originally proposed by Daniel Burnham in his 1909 “Plan of Chicago.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, who would need to greenlight the plan before it goes before the Chicago City Council for consideration, said in a recent email to downtown residents that Riverside’s initial proposal “was deemed unacceptable by the community and the Alderman due to architectural and traffic concerns.”

The new plan “incorporates all of the valuable feedback we received from the community and Alderman Reilly,” Riverside CEO John O’Donnell said in a statement. “We share the community’s goal of adapting and revitalizing this landmark in a way that honors its historic significance while tapping its full potential as a welcoming hub for Chicago residents, commuters and visitors for years to come.”

Riverside is publicly pitching its latest version of the plan as it negotiates with Toronto-based BMO Harris Bank to be the anchor tenant for the office tower, according to sources familiar with the talks. BMO is eyeing the Union Station project to consolidate its Chicago operations in an office as big as 500,000 square feet, sources said.

If that deal is finalized, it could help Riverside and Convexity land financing for the Union Station remake.

Aldermanic votes for the remainder of the year could face extra scrutiny heading into elections in February.

Riverside has been one of the most prominent developers in the city in recent years. The firm developed the 54-story office tower at 150 N. Riverside and is part of a joint venture behind the 1.4 million-square-foot tower under construction at 110 N. Wacker Drive, the former site of General Growth Properties.

Convexity Properties is the real estate development arm of DRW Holdings, the firm founded by trader Don Wilson.

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Why Chicago is the best answer to Amazon’s talent challenge

Amazon has a challenge that would stump Alexa: how to satisfy its voracious appetite for growth while keeping costs in check. Of the 17 U.S. metro areas the company is considering for a headquarters expansion outside Seattle, Chicago looks like the best answer.

At first glance, Chicago isn’t close to the cheapest location. With an average annual wage last year of $54,160, it is eighth-most expensive among the 17 U.S. areas in the race. (The Washington, D.C., market has three finalist sites. Comparable data for Toronto, the lone non-U.S. contender, wasn’t readily available.) Miami has the lowest average annual pay, at $46,860.

But when you drill into the job types Amazon would need for a headquarters that could employ up to 50,000 people within 15 years, Chicago is surprisingly affordable. Meanwhile, the cities traditionally thought of as sources of low-cost talent—Atlanta and Dallas, for instance—aren’t all that cheap. And those that are the cheapest—Indianapolis, Nashville, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio—are probably too small to accommodate an employer as fast-growing as Amazon.

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Crain’s compared 16 job categories, from marketing and accounting to IT management and programming, across the 17 metro areas. Here’s what we found:

  • Chicago is the second-cheapest area for market research analysts, with an average annual paycheck of $62,880.
  • Chicago is the third-cheapest for sales managers, marketing managers and transportation and storage managers—a better bargain than Columbus, Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., and Dallas.
  • Chicago is the fourth-cheapest for human resources managers, less expensive than Pittsburgh, Denver and Philadelphia.
  • Chicago is the fifth-cheapest for computer and information systems managers and in the middle of the pack for most front-line tech jobs.

“There are only seven cities outside Seattle that have an equivalent or greater population base of advanced industry service workers,” says Chris Fair, president of consulting firm Resonance in Vancouver, British Columbia. Chicago is one of them. In fact, Resonance ranked Chicago as the most realistic choice for Amazon, the only study to do so.

Cities such as Raleigh, Nashville, Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh or Austin, Texas, Fair says, “are not serious contenders based on the number of people Amazon is looking to hire. That is the one factor that people are overlooking. You’re not going to find 50,000 workers in a place with a pool of 100,000 advanced workers.”

Chicago is the nation’s third-largest city, with a workforce of 4.6 million. Only nine of the 20 semifinalists are as large as Seattle, where Amazon already is finding itself hard-pressed to find enough talent at prices that don’t send its budget skyrocketing.

Amazon is more cost-sensitive than most tech companies since it imposes a strict cap on salaries, reportedly around $175,000 a year, and relies heavily on stock to attract and retain talent.

Still, Chicago largely has been overlooked in the Amazon derby handicapping. Even in the case of Resonance’s research, it won by default. New York topped the list as most qualified but was deemed too expensive; Toronto was runner-up but disqualified because Canadian cities don’t offer tax incentives.

New York has the largest workforce, at 9.3 million, but it’s also the most expensive for most jobs. Newark, N.J., another contender that has been promising incentives to Amazon, has a comparatively small workforce of 1.2 million but has the highest or second-highest pay rates for most jobs. Often right behind them is Washington, which has topped many lists as the favorite for HQ2. “It’s a two-horse race between Washington, D.C., and Chicago,” Fair says.

Tech towns, such as Austin and Denver, that have the same vibe and demographics as Seattle also have the same drawbacks. Relatively small ponds that have been overfished, they have grown pricey. Raleigh, home to software maker Red Hat and large IBM and Cisco outposts, has the second-highest pay for programming talent, behind Washington, but a labor pool that’s one-third the size of Seattle’s.

Programmers in Austin and Chicago make about $90,000 a year, a significant discount to the $124,000 average annual paycheck in Seattle. Austin has twice the concentration of programmers as Chicago and the rest of the nation, and Seattle’s is even greater. But Chicago has a scale advantage: 9,860 programmers, equal to Seattle. Austin, with a workforce of about 1 million, has 3,490 programmers, according to BLS data.

High-paying tech companies in a small market can drive up wages for nontech jobs, too. Managers in administrative services, HR, training and development, marketing, and sales cost 10 to 19 percent more in Austin than Chicago. Tech-sales workers make 50 percent more in Austin, and market research analysts make 35 percent more.

Chicago also has seen lower wage inflation than many HQ2 semifinalists. Last year, annual pay here rose 1.6 percent, half the rate in Seattle. It’s the silver lining in the cloud that has been hanging over the Chicago economy for the past decade. Relatively slow growth in wages and housing values frustrates people already here, but it looks good to employers and employees being squeezed hard by inflation. Average paychecks grew 10 percent in Seattle between 2014 and 2017, faster than in any of the U.S. cities under consideration for HQ2, federal data show.

To be sure, Amazon might not see Chicago as its kind of town, based on workforce culture or particular skill sets. Although the company now has about 10,000 employees in Illinois, the vast majority work in warehouses scattered throughout the suburbs. It has a few hundred people downtown, most of them in sales. It has thousands of workers in tech and other jobs in Boston, New York, Washington, Vancouver and other cities.

But talent is the key ingredient to the sprawling company’s constantly evolving business that seems poised to upset more and more of the U.S. economy. That requires unusual breadth and scale. In the past year alone, Amazon has ballooned to more than 575,000 employees from 382,400 as it pushed deeper into groceries, brick-and-mortar retail, logistics and web services. Much of the recent employment spike can be attributed to last year’s $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market and its 89,000 employees. But even before that, Amazon’s headcount more than doubled in two years to nearly 350,000.

If Amazon hopes to maintain that kind of growth, Chicago doesn’t look like flyover country.

Airbnb hosts scramble after Chicago sends notices to 2,400, rejecting registrations for short-term rentals

Airbnb hosts throughout Chicago are concerned and confused after receiving notices from the city last week informing them they could face potential fines if they don’t remove their units from the home-sharing platform within seven days.

The notices, sent to more than 2,400 people via email, rejected Airbnb hosts’ applications to register under the city’s short-term rental ordinance. The applications contained incomplete or unrecognizable information, said the notices, which instructed hosts to contact Airbnb to correct the errors.

Now hosts are scrambling to figure out what is wrong with their listings and how they can correct them to avoid potential fines.

“I have no idea what else I can put on (my unit’s address),” said Patty Peebles, who has been renting out a bedroom in her Rogers Park apartment since last fall. “We canceled with some people who were coming in from out of the country. I feel terrible about that. … We just felt worried about getting huge fines.”

The city’s short-term housing ordinance, passed about two years ago, tightened rules for Airbnb and other short-term rental sites. It requires all units listed on the sites to have a registration number; without one, hosts potentially face fines of $1,500 or more per day.

The city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection started rolling out registration numbers to Airbnb hosts about a year ago, and it’s time for the city to renew some of those registrations, said Rosa Escareno, commissioner of the department. As part of that process, the city is working to clean up its data. Hosts with incomplete or unrecognizable information — such as a missing unit number or street direction — received a rejection notice via email.

“We could no longer continue to operate units with incomplete addresses,” Escareno said. “We’ve been working with Airbnb in good faith to address this issue over this past month, over this past year. They have failed to address the issue.”

Receiving the notice does not mean a host has been permanently rejected from registering with the city, Escareno said. Hosts need to work with Airbnb to figure out what information is missing from their listings and correct the errors.

Airbnb submits to the city updated data on its listings twice a month. Once the city receives complete data on the units of the hosts who received those rejection notices, it will process the data and issue registration numbers. Airbnb is scheduled to submit data later this week, Escareno said.

Airbnb has been working with its hosts for months to make sure the addresses of their listed units are complete. The company will continue to work with the city and its hosts to address the issue, spokesman Ben Breit said in an emailed statement.

“As one of only two licensed (home-sharing) platforms in Chicago, Airbnb appreciates its ongoing partnership with the city and looks forward to a swift resolution of this matter,” he said.

So far, the city has properly registered about 6,000 Airbnb hosts, Escareno said. Between July 2017 and this past May, the city issued a few dozen citations for violations of the law, generating $100,000 in revenue from fines, according to the business affairs department. A department spokeswoman did not provide updated numbers before deadline.

The ordinance went into full effect in 2017 and has faced legal challenges, delays and uneven enforcement since its approval. For nearly a year, Airbnb was the only platform licensed by the city. In June, the city also licensed HomeAway after settling a lawsuit with the home-sharing platform.

Other platforms, though, found the ordinance too complex and challenging to comply with. TripAdvisor removed its Chicago vacation rental listings in December and no longer allows new Chicago listings.

It’s frustrating to get caught between the city and Airbnb, host Jennifer Serrano said. She received a rejection notice last week — the day before embarking on a road trip — and has spent hours calling and emailing the city and Airbnb. Serrano said she updated on Airbnb the address of the basement unit she rents out in her single-family home, but she hasn’t received confirmation that the issue is resolved.

“We’re definitely wanting to conform to everything that Chicago wants us to do, jump through all the hoops to be registered, but they’re not making it easy,” she said. “They’re making it near impossible.”