Chicago’s The 78 Gets in Gear

Related Midwest's Curt Bailey tells how the $7.2 billion megadevelopment will reshape the workplace and urban living in the Windy City.
Rendering of The 78’s master plan. Image courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Curt Bailey, President, Related Midwest. Image courtesy of Related Midwest
Curt Bailey, President, Related Midwest. Image courtesy of Related Midwest

Last month, Related Midwest, the developer of The 78, Chicago’s long-anticipated neighborhood, officially announced it began working on the Wells-Wentworth Connector, the road that will link downtown and Chinatown, providing access to an area that has been isolated from the city for years. The event marked the beginning of the project’s first phase, which will focus on developing the infrastructure and relocating the Metra tracks on this side of the city.

The next phases of the $7.2 billion project will add residential and commercial space, with the office component expected to reach 4 million square feet. The corporate campus is expected to attract approximately 24,000 permanent jobs.  In an effort to reduce the city’s housing deficit, the developer planned 5,000 new units for The 78, with 1,000 set aside for low- and medium-income residents. The megadevelopment will be completed by a 7-acre park and a 100-foot-wide public riverwalk.

Inspired by successful projects such as Hudson Yards in New York and King’s Cross in London, part of Related’s global portfolio, The 78 will combine modern architecture with unique elements for the Chicago market such as the “sidescraper.” The neighborhood will also be home to the Discovery Partners Institute, a high-tech incubator affiliated with the University of Illinois.


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In the interview below, Curt Bailey, president of Related Midwest, discusses the multi-phase development and the timeline for what will become Chicago’s 78th neighborhood.

What does The 78 mean for Related Midwest, taking into account your company’s past work?

Bailey: With The 78, Related Midwest is developing a 62-acre riverfront innovation district that will be the city’s next great neighborhood for office, residential, retail, dining, culture, education and recreation. For more than 30 years, we have designed and executed complex, market-defining developments in Chicago. For The 78, we will leverage our Chicago successes and our extraordinary achievements in placemaking on mixed-use projects such as Hudson Yards in New York and King’s Cross in London. These future-forward neighborhoods have redefined the modern workplace and urban living. The 78 will do the same in Chicago.

What are the innovative aspects of this project?

Bailey: Innovation is at the core of our plans for The 78. This neighborhood will be a live-work-play community where a corporate campus with 4 million square feet of office space will welcome 24,000 permanent employees. The 78 will be home to the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), an interdisciplinary, transformative research center designed to drive tech-based economic growth. As the heart of the Illinois Innovation Network, led by the University of Illinois, DPI will enroll top students to collaborate with world-class faculty and businesses, bringing to market solutions in areas from computing to agriculture and health. The opportunities for students at DPI will make it a global talent destination, provide downtown companies with a workforce pipeline and establish The 78 as Chicago’s 21st century tech hub.

The 78 Riverwalk. Image courtesy of 3XN

Roads, rails and water taxis will lead to this tech hub, poised to be the city’s most desirable location for corporate tenants to work and live. The 78’s master plan, created by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, includes modern infrastructure with new connectivity to adjacent neighborhoods, cutting-edge architecture and a confluence of public amenities, including a 7-acre park. The plan also expands the Chicago Riverwalk by a half-mile, creating 5 acres of new space for recreation, world-class dining, shopping and cultural experiences. These assets will help companies at The 78 attract and retain talented, diverse leaders.

The plan also includes a flagship “sidescraper”: a low-rise, horizontal office building oriented along the park, with expansive floor plates and wide terraces to embrace the outdoors. The design promotes collaboration, connection and easy access to campus amenities. In Chicago, this building typology—new construction with up to 85,000 square feet on one floor—is unique to The 78, giving an anchor tenant the opportunity to customize a next-generation, waterfront headquarters near residences, educational institutions and entertainment.

What is the status of the project and what do you expect will be finalized by the end of this year?

Bailey: The plan for The 78 has been fully approved, with private and public funds dedicated to infrastructure improvements. Construction began on the Wells-Wentworth Connector at The 78 in the summer of 2019. The Wells-Wentworth Connector is a critical new thoroughfare that connects the Loop to Chinatown. The street prioritizes safety for workers, students and residents, and its design considers the various modes of transit preferred by city dwellers.

The Connector will be completed in late 2020. Planning is underway for The 78’s first phase, which will include DPI and deliver in 2024.

What is the most challenging part of building an entire neighborhood from scratch?

Bailey: Related has built neighborhoods from scratch in New York and London, with in-house industry veterans and renowned subject matter experts—in everything from transportation to technology, from urban planning to sustainability—collaborating on development and execution. Our expertise in placemaking and the proven success of these neighborhoods makes us well-equipped to navigate the challenges of an immense undertaking at The 78, where we are transforming completely undeveloped land into Chicago’s next great neighborhood.

Rendering of The 78. Image courtesy of Related Midwest

Infrastructure will be the key for making this project a successful continuation of the Loop. What kind of issues have you encountered at this stage and what do you expect going forward?

Bailey: The land at The 78 has been vacant for over 90 years and has little existing infrastructure. There are a number of industry experts engaged to unlock the site’s potential. The first infrastructure move is the Wells-Wentworth Connector, which will be accessible in just 14 months. After the Connector’s completion, we will lead $850 million of additional infrastructure improvements. The primary infrastructure projects include relocation and enclosure of the Metra tracks, reconstruction of the Chicago River seawall and a new CTA Red Line station, which will make The 78 even easier to access, navigate and enjoy for employees, residents and visitors. 

How do you expect The 78 to impact Downtown and the Chicago commercial real estate market as a whole?  

Bailey: The 78 is a $7.2 billion project that is expected to generate $40 billion of net new spending over 30 years. The 78 will provide 15,000 trade, construction and professional services jobs, along with 24,000 permanent jobs. Through $850 million of infrastructure improvements and an expanded Chicago Riverwalk, The 78 will grow the footprint of downtown Chicago and link the neighborhoods of South Loop, Chinatown, Pilsen and Bronzeville, creating new opportunities for residents of these diverse communities.

As the home of DPI, The 78 will position itself as a talent pipeline and catalyst for Chicago’s long-term growth. With a transit-oriented, campus-style environment showcasing cutting-edge architecture and 12 acres of public green space with year-long programming, The 78 is set to become Chicago’s next great neighborhood, while continuing to draw on current development trends to the south and west.