By Lisa Skolnik | February 17, 2015 | Home & Real Estate
The veteran Chicago developer unveils his latest game changer, a much-anticipated new project at 400 West Huron.
SoNo East, a rental property located south of North Avenue and east of the Chicago River.
Chicago developer Bill Smith is betting on the age-old adage “Hindsight is 20/20.” And for good reason. As the developer of the Gold Coast’s most successful residential high-rise of modern times—the now-iconic dazzler at 30 West Oak Street, a building that’s broken sales records and set new standards for its genre—he’s gunning for a repeat at his newest project, a 46-unit condo tower at 400 West Huron Street, now in the sales stage with an estimated delivery date of June 2016.
Is Smith dreaming? We’re betting not, given his passion and determination—and his track record. Take his pent-up craving to flex his design chops on the job. “I know so much more today that I didn’t know 10 years ago,” notes Smith. “What I can do on a luxury project now [will yield] an incomparable living experience.” His eyes light up as he waxes poetic on the sumptuous stones and smartly designed kitchen systems he’s found on recent treks abroad.
Smith parlayed a small residential contracting business begun as a college student in the 1970s into Smithfield Properties, a thriving commercial and residential development business. Then he redefined Chicago’s luxury condominium market in the oughties with a string of high-profile, architecturally shrewd high-rises.
1025 North Dearborn.
With their glassy façades, bold truss work, and astute use of the most economical yet effective building materials of the moment—be it concrete or steel—each is sleek, luminous, and structurally smart, not to mention flawlessly location savvy. Cases in point: River North’s 2002 Erie on the Park, which gave the area sky-high terraces and fabulous views where there were previously none; its kitty-cornered 2004 sibling, Kingsbury on the Park, which did more of the same; and 2007’s mixed-use Joffrey Tower, which brought fresh energy to the busy Loop with a breathtaking 50-foot-high cutout in its gut.
But it is 30 West Oak that, thus far, has been the jewel in Smith’s crown—and a market game changer. When it was built, the building sold out quickly for $495 per square foot. “That was considered sky-high back then, but now it’s going for well over $1,000 per square foot,” says @properties broker Beth Wexner, who has executed a record 12 resales in the building. In a post-crash market, where most property values still haven’t risen above 2006 sales numbers, “that’s remarkable,” she notes.
The success of 30 West Oak Street, Wexner says, “is a testament to Smith’s forward thinking mind-set. He tapped into what people want in a luxury building: an intimate number of units; large, unique floor plates; and fabulous finishes and modern architecture.”
As successful as 30 West Oak has been, Smith has even higher hopes for his latest project. “I know 400 will be better than 30 West Oak Street, and even more profitable,” says the developer confidently.
30 West Oak is now selling for well over $1,000 per square foot.
Smith has always been exacting about his projects, regardless of price point. “Bill truly delights in every nuance of design—at every level,” says acclaimed Chicago designer Rick Valicenti, who heads Smith’s branding agency, Thirst. “He’s super intense to collaborate with. He pushes, and welcomes the push back.”
“Bill kick-started a number of neighborhoods, not as the first but always as the developer with the best luxury product for the price,” says @properties cofounder Thaddeus Wong. He was doing more of the same when he kicked off the strapping yet undeniably sculptural 28-story SoNo in a no-man’s land of big-box stores just south of North Avenue and east of the Chicago River in 2007. At the time, the project “hit the vibe, geographically,” notes Ruttenberg. Millennials bought in droves, but when the bottom fell out of the market in 2007, buyers walked. “I had to sell it twice. By then I was so exhausted I retired,” says Smith, who decamped to his second home in Arizona in 2008.
The retirement was short-lived; Smith’s fighting spirit brought him back in 2010. “I realized there was an apartment shortage, and I owned a piece of land near SoNo that was zoned and ready to go,” he explains. Today, the first building is called SoNo West, and the newer one, a rental tower, is SoNo East.
Using the momentum gained from his former projects, Smith is diving back into the market with both feet at 400 West Huron Street, already a fast seller. He’s also continuing to dabble in the rentals game at the now-leasing 805 North LaSalle Street, a high-style tower with sexy amenities and sensible rents. In inimitable Smith style, he says, “It’s a new concept I call ‘affordable luxury.’” Regardless of the project, for big-ticket Chicago buyers the lesson of hindsight makes it clear: When it comes to a Smith building, the smartest time to get in is right from the start.