Item from the past: Feb. 11, 2002
Most of the companies that vanished when the high-tech bubble burst didn’t leave a trace, except maybe for pockets of sublease space here and there, and a lot of cautionary tales about the “New Economy.” Not so marchFIRST, the doomed entity formed by the late ’90s merger of management consultant Whittman-Hart and Web consultant USWeb/CKS. The very visible remains of that high-tech folly, a half-complete corporate campus west of the West Loop, will soon be auctioned to the highest bidder.
In its heady days, marchFIRST envisioned developing a $115 million headquarters and training facility, and in 1999 convinced the City of Chicago of its vision too. Rather than see thousands of high-tech jobs flee the city, that year Mayor Daley agreed to pony up a $23.5 million subsidy in the form of tax increment financing.
The campus is a city block in size, or about three acres. The site is bounded on the east by Elizabeth St., which is only a block west of Racine, with Fulton marking its southern boundary. The neighborhood, characterized largely by the food distribution businesses, is collectively known as the Fulton Market. Nearby neighbors include a large ADM facility that sports grain elevators, and the Wichita Packing Co., specialists in pork ribs. Yet the site isn’t very far from the Loop, as the view from one of the campus conference rooms shows. The entire arc of the Loop, from North Michigan Ave. south to the Sears Tower, seems quite close from that vantage.
The campus was to have included a new seven-story office building measuring about 208,000 sf, connected to a nine-story, 664-space parking garage. Turner Construction was hired to build the new buildings, and worked on them until December 2000. Since work stopped, the partly complete office-garage structure has forlornly braved the elements from behind a chain-link fence.
Two other buildings at the site, the 130,000-sf 300 North Elizabeth and the 42,500-sf 320 North Elizabeth, are loft rehabs that were essentially complete when marchFIRST went belly up. In fact, the company was using much of the rehab space when it folded, leaving behind a certain amount of office fixtures and furniture, plus fairly sophisticated telecommunications wiring, all of which is included in the auction.
Walking through the North Elizabeth buildings in their current state is something like touring a ghost town—a well-appointed ghost town with an odd color scheme emphasizing purples and reds. Track lighting, a few hundred expensive Acron office chairs, and other touches attest to the fact that marchFIRST once did have some money, and was willing to spend it on its new headquarters. A scattering of papers and interdepartmental envelopes and office manuals in various cubicles shows that when the end came, it came before there was time to clean up all of the debris of this particular Internet dream.
2005 Postscript: If I remember right, the property was never auctioned. The last time I took a look at this property, from my commuter train, the unfinished portion was still unfinished.