The Biography of Chicago’s Marina City

“A seedy, crumbling wreck”
September 27, 1992

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“Every so often the gods of politics, economics, and art conspire to create a mess so densely interwoven that mortals despair of solution. That seems to be what has happened to Marina City, one of Chicago’s signature skyscrapers of the modern era, but one that has fallen on exceedingly hard times.”

– Chicago Tribune editorial, September 29, 1992

It is 1992. Unemployment has hit a five-year high. In Los Angeles, the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King sparks riots. Former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton is running for president.

At Marina City, two deals to sell the commercial property have fallen through. As the property languished in bankruptcy court, it was losing so much money – reportedly $50,000 every month – that proper maintenance was becoming a luxury it could no longer afford.

J. Linn Allen, Chicago Tribune. Photo from University of Illinois Chicago.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune on September 27, 1992, J. Linn Allen (left) described Marina City as “a seedy, crumbling wreck, overwhelmed by so many problems that any near-term solution appears unlikely.”

As if things could get any worse, Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency that had been in charge of the commercial property for more than two years, abruptly abandoned any responsibility for it. RTC had won a foreclosure judgment 18 months earlier – and had even announced a sheriff’s sale – but gave up its right to the property and more than $23 million in liens because it said it would be too expensive to prepare the property for sale.

“The way things are going,” said Cook County Circuit Court Judge Lester Foreman, “Marina City will fall into the river.”

He was the latest judge to oversee the tangled, five-year foreclosure action. At the request of RTC, the case had been moved from federal bankruptcy court down to the county-level Circuit Court in 1990. Foreman did not even hear about the decision from RTC – he heard about it from a reporter. “That’s just a commentary on the way this has been handled,” he said. “It makes this so ridiculous it’s almost laughable.”

Parties who had interest in Marina City commercial property, 1983-91.

(Above) Parties who had an interest in the commercial property of Marina City from 1983 to 1991.

In 1987, four years after buying the property from Charles Swibel’s Marina Management Corporation, Marina City Associates filed for bankruptcy after defaulting on its mortgage from Continental Savings Associates, which itself went insolvent. During the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, which insured Continental, became insolvent. It was abolished in 1989 and replaced by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

In 1990, the property ended up with Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal government’s thrift bailout agency, but they did not want the property. They said it would cost more to pay taxes and make repairs than they could earn by selling it to a developer. RTC abandoned its claim on the last day of 1993.

James M. Flanagan was the court-appointed receiver who managed Marina City. He said much of the deterioration was superficial, but some was structural and potentially hazardous. Steel beams supporting the vehicle ramps needed to be replaced. The riverside walkway had been closed for more than a year because steel and concrete stairs leading to it were rotted and coming loose. Flanagan said the commercial property manager at Marina City, John L. Marks, could not even buy light bulbs or cleaning supplies without adding to the massive debt owed to increasingly restless creditors.

Commonwealth Edison was talking about disconnecting electrical service. The property manager said it was a strong possibility.

On June 3, 1992, an assistant vice president of Sudler Marling, Inc., the manager of the residential property at Marina City, wrote to Flanagan on behalf of the condominium association. Residents were concerned about the steel ramps at the entrances to the property from both State Street and Dearborn Street.

“Visually it can be determined that these steel ramps have dropped to a most noticeable degree at the sidewalk side,” wrote Lawrence J. Lolli. “The membership indicates that noise generated from vehicles passing over these ramps is greater than it was in the past. Your staff at the property has placed barricades at both entrances where the ramps have dropped, and it is our understanding that you have had representatives from [structural engineering firm] Wiss, Janney, Elstner & Associates to the property to explore this problem.”

  • Read this letter
  • Richard Flader

    To get to their condo units, residents had to pass through a maze of scaffolds and barriers, then cross a dimly lit, musty concourse on a lower level that was lined with blank storefronts. “It’s very distressing and disturbing,” said Richard Flader, president of Marina Towers Condominium Association, who had been a resident since 1963.

    Flader (left) said that due to the dilapidation of the commercial property, the residential property had not increased in value in recent years. Prices ranged from about $44,000 for a modest studio apartment to $169,000 for a nicer two-bedroom unit.

    In addition to desperately needed maintenance, there was still the small matter of a large unpaid property tax bill, said to be in the millions of dollars.

    And the abandoned theater and nearly vacant office building were contaminated with asbestos.

    A 1990 appraisal of the commercial property put its value at about $20 million, but experts said it was closer to $12 million. Just paying the back taxes and cleaning up the asbestos would cost $10-12 million.

    The decision by RTC to walk away from Marina City came as a surprise to the bankruptcy trustee, Ilene F. Goldstein, who still formally held title to the property. But RTC said it was a business decision. Selling Marina City would simply cost more than it was worth.

    RTC spokesperson Felisa Neuringer told the Chicago Tribune she understood Marina City was an important structure to Chicago, but RTC had an obligation to all U.S. taxpayers. “If we wanted to use tax dollars to clean up a property in Des Moines, would Chicago taxpayers want that?”

    Reached in 2007, Neuringer, then Director of Communications & Marketing for Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, remembered Marina City. “At the time, I kept saying to folks that when it’s all said and done, history will actually look kindly on the RTC...We really always tried to do what was in the best interest of the taxpayer at the time.”

    There was one thing on which everyone seemed to agree. The only salvation for Marina City would be for it to be sold to a developer who could pump a lot of money into it.

    Aerial photo of Marina City and neighborhood north of the Chicago Loop. Photo by Airpix (10-Jul-91).

    (Above) Aerial photo taken on July 10, 1991, by Airpix of Lockport, Illinois, of Marina City and River North neighborhood north of the Chicago Loop.


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