The Platform

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As Chicago grapples with legitimate safety and economic issues, the City Council dedicates time to demanding a cease-fire in Israel.

Chicago, mirroring the struggles of numerous major cities, grapples with significant economic and public safety challenges that impede its growth and jeopardize its future prospects. The city’s leadership, specifically its City Council, must pivot away from engaging in debates on irrelevant global resolutions and concentrate on crafting a pragmatic strategic direction to reverse the city’s current downward trajectory.

The recent City Council sessions, consumed by discussions on a resolution demanding a cease-fire in Israel, exemplify a troubling misalignment of priorities. With the city besieged by unchecked crime and carjackings, not to mention frequent shootings, one must question why these pressing local issues are sidelined in favor of international concerns. It is imperative that the Council dedicates its time to developing a robust plan for citywide public safety—one that not only addresses crime but also mandates sufficient jail time for repeat offenders.

The City Council’s apparent squandering of time has garnered attention far beyond conservative media critiques. Even popular culture touchstones like Saturday Night Live have lampooned the Council’s choices, with biting satire suggesting that Palestine has called for a cease-fire in Chicago. When a mainstream comedy show readily highlights the ineffectiveness of a city’s governance, it underscores the necessity for realigning priorities to support a city in decline.

In the crucial downtown economic areas, which are currently witnessing a slump in sales tax revenues and overall economic activity, Chicago should be implementing security zones. In these designated critical “revenue generation” economic zones, any crime committed would carry a punishment twice as severe as in other areas. This policy would ensure that a crime normally meriting a two-year maximum jail sentence would be subject to a doubled penalty if perpetrated within these zones.

As it stands, the likelihood of jail time for crimes in Chicago is as uncommon as a 72-degree day in January. Criminals repeatedly offend, emboldened by the expectation of facing little to no repercussions.

To address these significant issues related to crime and revenue, Chicago needs more than optimistic statements; it requires concrete action: the establishment and enforcement of effective policies. Such decisive action would cast the city in a more favorable light, enhancing its appeal for both local and out-of-state tourism, and enticing new corporate establishments.

It begs the question—where are the city government and civic leaders in confronting this crisis? Perhaps they fail to recognize it as a critical concern, aided by local media that often seems to divert attention rather than demand accountability. While the media may avert its gaze, the daily realities are unmistakably evident to commuters and shoppers who are increasingly reluctant to venture into downtown areas.

This narrative of urban decline is not unique to Chicago. New York City is also experiencing a drastic decline in corporate leasing and is struggling to persuade its workforce to return to the office amid safety concerns on public transportation.

In a significant shift within the corporate landscape, businesses are recalibrating their spatial needs, leading to a marked reduction in their office footprints. This trend is not just confined to minor adjustments; some entities are opting for a dramatic change in scenery by relocating to entirely different states. A notable example in Chicago is Mesirow Financial, which has recently reduced its office space by a substantial 33%. This move is reflective of a broader trend where, on average, firms are downsizing their corporate spaces by 50% or more. This contraction in demand for office space has ushered in what I have previously termed “the Reverse of Musical Chairs” – a scenario where the market is flooded with available space, yet there are fewer takers as businesses scale back on their physical premises.

This burgeoning gap between supply and demand is casting a shadow over the real estate market, particularly affecting the valuation of commercial properties. A stark illustration of this downturn is the sale of a landmark building opposite the Sears (Willis) Tower, which fetched a price 90% lower than its valuation just ten years prior. This precipitous drop serves as a critical alarm for stakeholders invested in economic development and regional stability, signaling a need for a reassessment of how commercial real estate operates in an evolving corporate world.

The distress within the commercial real estate sector extends beyond mere reductions in office space. Across the city, commercial properties are increasingly being marked down in what can only be described as “fire-sale” discounts. This trend is not confined to the downtown core; foreclosures are being filed across a broader swath of Chicago. As highlighted, the situation has reached a critical point where the central Loop alone accounted for 3,000,000 square feet of distressed property by the end of 2023, signaling a pervasive issue that transcends geographical boundaries.

Amidst this backdrop, the City Council finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with limited time and shrinking revenue streams. The urgency of the moment calls for a strategic refocus on safeguarding the health of the city’s commercial real estate market, alongside bolstering the city’s overall security framework. The exodus of companies has led to a surge in unoccupied spaces, transforming what was once a manageable issue into a veritable tsunami of vacancies. This escalating crisis underscores the imperative for decisive action to protect the city’s economic foundation and maintain its vibrancy in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Subtle yet telling indicators of a city’s shifting prestige can often be observed in cultural and media traditions. A case in point: For years, the New Year’s Eve countdown in Times Square, a spectacle broadcasted nationwide, served as a segue to similar celebrations across the country, with Chicago traditionally playing a central role. This practice saw major networks transitioning from New York’s iconic celebration to the vibrant festivities along Chicago’s lakefront, before moving on to the West Coast to cover events in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. However, this tradition has faltered in recent years, bypassing Chicago in favor of cities like Miami, New Orleans, and Nashville for the Midwest’s moment in the spotlight. This shift in broadcasting choices subtly underscores a diminishing perception of Chicago’s relevance on the national stage.

The absence of Chicago in these celebratory broadcasts does not merely reflect a change in media preferences but hints at a broader concern regarding the city’s standing. When a city like Chicago, with its rich history and cultural significance, is overlooked, it prompts reflections on its current position and the factors contributing to such perceptions.

It’s crucial, however, to channel this introspection into constructive action. While it’s easy to cast a critical eye on other municipalities and their challenges, the focus must remain on addressing the pressing issues within our own city. With decades of experience and observation, the call to action is clear: It’s time for Chicago to confront and address its challenges head-on, striving not only to reclaim its place in national traditions but also to enhance its stature through tangible improvements and strategic initiatives.

James Carlini is a strategist for mission critical networks, technology, and intelligent infrastructure. Since 1986, he has been president of Carlini and Associates. Besides being an author, keynote speaker, and strategic consultant on large mission critical networks including the planning and design for the Chicago 911 center, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor networks, and the international network for GLOBEX, he has served as an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University.