August 18, 2017
The Real Estate Moguls: Albert and Jason Friedman - Friedman Properties
What They've Done: Become the largest property owners in River North, with more than 50 properties, purchased block by block. "It's not just about renting space; it's about building relationships," says Albert Friedman. "The success you have in life is based on what people speak of you."
In the Beginning: Before Albert Friedman's father died (when Albert was 21), the pair would walk to work together at a hotel a family member managed, and along the way they would pass the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, rebuilt in 1892. "He'd say, 'Isn't that a beautiful building?'" recalls Friedman. "After he passed, I wanted to own it—and every other building he liked." Now that he owns it, he has another memento: In Friedman's office sits a glass-encased, 3-D diorama of the infamous courthouse.
Family Values: "When we don't agree, my mother is the nuclear option," says Jason Friedman. Adds Albert: "I'm always thinking I can do better. That's why my son is here. It's nice to have someone from the next generation."
Also Known As: Although he's been called "The Mayor" and "King of River North," Albert Friedman says his first nickname was "Frontier Friedman." "It didn't bother me," he says. "It was a good thing."
The Restaurateurs: Brad Young, Billy Dec, and Arturo Gomez Rockit Ranch Productions
What They've Done: Anchored River North as an entertainment district with the development of their trifecta of hot spots—Rockit Bar & Grill, Sunda New Asian, and The Underground nightclub—with a fourth River North venue opening this summer, Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ at 441 N. Clark St., which will offer American-Asian barbecue alongside custom distilled spirits.
Rule Breakers: Ten years ago, “There wasn’t anyone doing Kobe burgers or truffle fries,” says Dec of the vision behind Rockit Bar & Grill. “And no one was playing rock unless you were a college or sports bar. We saw the void in the middle—the highest quality of food presentation with a comfortable, cool atmosphere.” Says Young: “There really wasn’t anything like it in the city at that time, so we had a solid three years before the copycats started coming out of the woodwork. Some have come and gone, but we have stuck to our own game.”
A Perfect 10: As they celebrate their 10th anniversary this summer, the trio is looking toward the future. “We are just really excited to launch our second decade,” says Gomez. “There are companies that have had 20, even 40 years in the industry to build, so after seeing how much we have learned, we just feel ready to blaze new trails.” Just don’t expect an anniversary bash: “When it comes to our own personal celebration, we’ll probably get the most joy out of just thanking our teams, our families for letting us be workaholics, and one another for total commitment to helping this dream come true,” says Dec.
The Art Dealer: Douglas Van Tress The Golden Triangle, 330 N. Clark St.
What He's Done: With partner Chauwarin Tuntisak, he amassed a 23,000-square-foot showcase of exotic international and Chicago-based furnishings that attracts serious collectors from around the country.
In the Beginning: The co-owners originally partnered up to sell rubies and sapphires from a Thailand mine. When that business nearly failed, the pair worked at a pizza place—Van Tress making and delivering pies, with Tuntisak working in management. They made enough money to establish The Golden Triangle, originally called Thai Imports, in 1989 by importing artifacts and antiques from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Good as Gold: The pair originally opened a 500-squarefoot showroom on Chicago Avenue. When real estate developer Albert Friedman tried to set up a meeting, Van Tress didn’t call him back because he was already locked into a two-year lease at another location. “I didn’t want to waste his time,” Van Tress says. Ultimately, Friedman prevailed, telling Van Tress, “We need to talk.” When he arrived at the gallery, Van Tress told him, “I can’t break my contract,” to which Friedman responded, “Who said anything about breaking your contract?” Friedman didn’t charge him rent for the first 10 months, helping Van Tress pay off his current lease. “It is long-term business thinking,” Van Tress says. “He’s playing chess and the other guys are playing hacky sack.”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The building that housed Tree Studios was built in 1894. The Medinah Temple and Tree Studios building. Hubbard Street as it stood in 1948. A view of Hubbard Street today.
The afternoon glow of a sinking sun peeks through Albert Friedman's office, backlighting a bookcase filled with green, blue, and caramel-colored glass bottles still frosty from the Great Chicago Fire that glazed them more than a century ago. They've been picked up at various River North buildings Friedman has acquired over the last 40 years.
Holding one of the bottles, his son, Jason—the executive vice president of Property Development for Friedman Properties—recalls telling some of the neighborhood restaurateurs they should serve their drinks in this bottle. "You know why?" he asks with a laugh, showcasing the bottle's rounded bottom. "Because you can never put it down; you just have to keep drinking."
Though Albert Friedman was the earliest proponent and a visionary of what has become one of Chicago's most thriving real estate districts—he owns some 50 properties, including the huge Bloomingdale's Home & Furniture store in the former Medinah Temple and Tree Studios building—others have joined the scene along the way, fueling explosive growth that has taken off primarily in the last decade.
From trendy restaurants to soaring real estate, a pulsating late–night club scene to a bona fide tech boom, this pocket of real estate has turned into Chicago's most desirable destination.
"Ten years ago there was a physical void, and no one was really going there," says Billy Dec, CEO and cofounder of Rockit Ranch Productions, a restaurant and entertainment development company that owns and operates Rockit Bar & Grill, Sunda restaurant, and The Underground. When Dec was considering the area as a site for his group's first restaurant, "It lacked customers, wasn't cool, and didn't have energy," he says, "but it had potential."
The Reid Murdoch Building was designated as a Chicago landmark.
The Early Years
At the turn of the 20th century, River North was known as Smokey Hollow for the sooty haze the myriad factories created. Rail cars transported goods in and out of the city, making it an ideal space for manufacturers that needed warehouses with large floor plates. Slowly this industrial area disappeared as companies—ike the middle-class families they employed—moved to the suburbs in the 1950s in favor of single-story, modern buildings surrounded by large tracts of land. By the 1960s many businesses had vacated, leaving behind large empty warehouses and loft buildings for a "skid row that manufactured lots of vices," Friedman recalls. "It was made up of people who were down on their luck. Most of the buildings were vacant and derelict."
The neighborhood (at the time called North Loop) was known as a red-light district, with adult bookstores and peep shows. When Marina City opened in 1962 just north of the Chicago River with its twin 64-story "corn cob towers," it was billed as a "city within a city"—much like the Marshall Field & Co.-built Merchandise Mart that opened in 1930 with a massive 4.2 million square feet—which kept those who lived and worked in the respective buildings secluded from exterior elements.
It wasn't until the 1970s that things started to change–but slowly. "A new culture of people came of age who were a little less constrained by what was, and were more defined by what could be," says Mark Falanga, president of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., from his fourth-floor suite. "It took some great vision to look at old manufacturing buildings and redefine the environment in which people here worked and lived."
After the death of his father in 1970, a 21-year-old Friedman inherited an "old rooming house" on Clark and Hubbard. A plethora of code violations forced him to tear it down, but it captured Friedman's attention, and he quickly purchased a vacant 40,000–square–foot building across the street with a $4,000 down payment. But he struggled to find tenants and was forced to fill the buildings with artists and photographers who paid rent in the form of artwork and photographs of Friedman's young family.
"I started seeing an opportunity in these old buildings because of what I saw being demolished," says Friedman, who later was named the chairman of the City of Chicago Landmarks Commission under former Mayor Richard M. Daley for his preservation work of historic buildings in River North.
When Gordon Sinclair opened his namesake restaurant at 500 N. Clark St. (now Naha restaurant) in 1976, Friedman had an epiphany. "I had people pulling up who had never been here in the past," he says. "All I had before were drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. All of a sudden I was actually seeing people who had money in their pockets." Soon after, Friedman started courting restaurants to join the neighborhood. "Remember, back then, restaurants and bars weren't sexy," he says. "They were the orphans of any real estate developer because they were notorious for odors, insects, and for people not paying rent."
It was also in the late 1970s when real estate mogul Daniel Levin, founder and chairman of The Habitat Company, tried to get financing for the posh East Bank Club, originally dreamed up as a pair of residential buildings on either side of a large health club. "They told me I was crazy," Levin says. Along with his partner, Jim McHugh, they rescaled their vision into the high-end, 450,000-square-foot health-club facility that now has 10,000 members and attracts the likes of President Barack Obama, Derrick Rose, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Grant DePorter, CEO of Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse, was one of East Bank Club's early adopters. At the time, he lived at the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker Drive. "Back then, it was very unsafe," DePorter says. "I wouldn't walk through River North; I would always run through it to get to East Bank Club."
For the next 20 years there were pockets of growth. Before Harry Caray's opened at 33 West Kinzie in 1987, DePorter says all the windows were boarded up so patrons wouldn't have to look out at the landmark building that had once been home to Frank Nitti, the enforcer of Al Capone, and his cheese company. Although windows were replaced so patrons could look outside, the neighborhood still had that stigma.
"We were always a planned destination," says DePorter. "We never had any impulse diners walking by. For years we didn't even bother to have a menu box outside."
At the same time, a young, unknown chef named Rick Bayless approached Friedman about backing a new restaurant concept: modern Mexican. Bayless had written a doctoral thesis on the cooking style, but Friedman says he was skeptical. Friedman eventually changed his mind, telling Bayless, who opened Frontera Grill in 1987, "Hopefully, we'll do it well, because I happen to like your cuisine."
Other early adopters included the likes of Rich Melman, the founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises—which started Maggiano's Little Italy and Corner Bakery in River North in 1991—and Ruth Fertel of Ruth's Chris Steak House, to whom Friedman rented on the condition she opened for lunch, not just dinner, to help with foot traffic.
Following the influx of upstart and trendy restaurants, forward-thinking art galleries, suppliers, and designers, such as The Golden Triangle, helped anchor the development and set up shop along the Superior and Huron Street corridors. These nascent studios laid the foundation for River North's famed Gallery District, a concentration of art galleries that has, over time, grown to become the nation's largest outside of Manhattan. Events like the Merchandise Mart's annual NeoCon World's Trade Fair, the largest commercial interior furnishings show in North America with nearly 1,000 exhibitors and more than 40,000 attendees, now cement the area as Chicago's design hub.
Rockit Bar & Grill
Coming of Age
When Billy Dec decided to open Rockit Ranch Productions 10 years ago with his partners Brad Young and Arturo Gomez, they tried to find something "as close as you could get to the Gold Coast without having to pay expensive rent," Dec says. But they also wanted something distinctly different from the "sleek Euro nightclub feel" of the Viagra Triangle. While River North's proximity to the Gold Coast, the Loop, public transit, and expressways made the area attractive, it was the sheer square footage available that made River North ideal for creative types who were trying to find unique spaces with high ceilings and lots of light.
The trio found the space they were looking for in a former lamp factory on Hubbard Street, with a 75–foot skylight and unobstructed views. "Architecturally, it doesn't get better than this," says Dec, about the building that houses Rockit Bar & Grill.
While other restaurants and nightclubs have populated the district over the years, they were mostly one-offs. It wasn't until Rockit Bar & Grill opened on Hubbard Street in 2004 that other restaurants took advantage of the attention it created and opened nearby, creating what today is a two-block strip of wall-to-wall restaurants. "We had trouble getting a cab those first two years," says Dec, but the team hosted celebrity parties with partners like GQ magazine and the Black Eyed Peas "before they were big" to attract people. "And once people came out," Dec says, "they realized the cab fare was the same as to the Gold Coast or somewhere else."
Then Rockit focused its attention one block north to Illinois Street—opening The Underground at 56 West Illinois in 2006 (voted No. 1 nightclub in the country by Nightclub & Bar magazine in 2008), and Sunda at 110 West Illinois three years later. This ushered in the development of what is now another thriving restaurant strip on Illinois.
Brothers R.J. and Jerrod Melman began their massive expansion into River North with HUB 51 at 51 West Hubbard in 2008. "When we were first talking, we wanted to be out of the public eye a little bit and thought maybe we'd open up in Wicker Park or somewhere else," says Jerrod Melman. Their dad, famed restaurateur Rich Melman, convinced them otherwise.
"He told us, ‘You are going to work just as hard, why not be in the premier area in the city, where the most is going on, the most young people are, the most nightlife is happening?'" says Melman from a booth in the newly opened RPM Italian restaurant at 52 West Illinois. "It was the best decision we ever made." The Melmans' Paris Club opened next door to Hub at 59 West Hubbard in 2011.
Now, as perhaps the trendiest neighborhood in Chicago, River North has become an "environment not only conducive to working and playing, but living as well," says celebrity chef Graham Elliot, who opened his eponymous restaurant at 217 West Huron in 2008 and Grahamwich at 615 N. State St. two years later.
That round-the-clock mentality has ushered into the neighborhood digital entrepreneurs like 1871, Razorfish, and Google. "Being open 24/7 was really important for us," says Kevin Willer, CEO and president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, which recently opened 1871, a 50,000-square-foot space for digital start-ups at the Merchandise Mart. He says they picked River North for several reasons: its
great public transportation and bike lanes and because it offers the ability to work where people want to socialize. "River North is becoming a tech hub," Willer says. "It's not a cheap-rent district, but it has that great combination of proximity to downtown, culture, the restaurants, bars, and places attractive to a young high-tech crowd. People want to come to work but also want to go out to lunch and socialize after work. It means a lot to hang out with your friends in your neighborhood."
It's the reason Mike Sands, the former Orbitz CMO and COO and current president and CEO of BrightTag, a digital marketing technology start-up, says he moved his 8,000-square-foot office to 440 North Wells in River North in February. He says the district's reputation helps when recruiting employees. "They don't want the four walls or cubicle," he says. "Even though it's an extra 10-minute walk from the Metra, it makes a world of difference when you cross the river."
The Golden Triangle is one of many upscale home furnishing stores and showrooms that now occupy the area.
"It's amazing what's happening with River North," says Donald Trump, whose glittering Trump Tower sits along the Chicago River on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times building. "It's one of the reasons we are there."
And while the Trump building offers the most luxurious condominiums and hotels in the area, many others are on their way. "River North has shown to be recession-proof," says Jerry Lasky, president, chairman and co-CEO of Spectrum Real Estate, which he cofounded in 1987 with Murray Peretz. "People want to be down here. But I think the biggest surprise is that now we are seeing young families and people with strollers."
As Chicago's "It" neighborhood, River North has nothing for sale anymore, Lasky says. Still, there are pockets of construction, including the massive 43-story, 450-unit luxury multifamily high-rise—a joint venture between The Habitat Company and Multi-Employer Property Trust (MEPT) at 360 West Hubbard, across from the East Bank Club. Other spots include the 20-story high-rise being built for American KidZ Academy on Kingsbury Street near Erie Park.
"River North is still a work in progress," Friedman says. "I have plans [for the next decade] far more significant than what we see today. I never even consider that I've arrived. I'm always thinking about what I can do better."
portraits by maria ponce berre