The lowdown on high-rise living

Since I moved into a high-rise in the South Loop three years ago, two friends from my former small vintage condo building in Edgewater have moved into high-rises on Sheridan Road, and another friend moved from a small vintage building in Evanston to a high-rise in Streeterville.

Two of us wanted to live downtown, one wanted to live on the lakefront, and the other was tired of the hassles of living on the third floor of a 90-year-old building with heating problems. We pay two, three, even five times as much in assessments as before. None of us regrets the move.

I used to think that I wasn’t a high-rise person, accepting the stereotype that high-rises are impersonal and sterile and that the newer ones lack the charm of vintage construction.

When I purchased my first condo 24 years ago, all I looked at was small and vintage. I wanted something that felt cozy and neighborly. With only 13 units, the building I moved into was a community — it was impossible not to know everyone — but it wasn’t always a community where everyone got along.

There were drawbacks to being small. The association couldn’t afford a management company, so we owners did all the work around the building. So much for carefree condo living.

There were drawbacks to being vintage. We didn’t control our own heat with the whole-building steam heating system, and when the temperature dropped down to the single digits, I spent evenings wrapped in a blanket. Doing laundry in winter meant carrying a laundry basket down icy stairs to the basement.

Despite those drawbacks, I liked my condo and the Edgewater neighborhood enough to stay 21 years. But as I anticipated retirement, I wanted to live within a mile or so of the Loop to walk to downtown attractions. Unless you have hundreds of thousands of dollars for a townhouse, living downtown means a high-rise.

Three years ago, it was possible to buy a one-bedroom condo in a downtown high-rise for under $200,000. I got slightly less space than my former place but more features — heat control, central air, an apartment-size washer and dryer, a balcony, and a parking space.

Of course, high-rises have elevators — no traipsing up three flights of stairs with groceries, as I did in my first Chicago apartment. It’s nice to be able to walk to a trash chute on the hall instead of going down the sometimes slippery back stairs to an alley dumpster. As in most high-rises, we have 24/7 doormen who keep strangers from entering the building and give us a friendly welcome home.

This really is carefree condo living. I might not think so if I were to serve on the condo association board, but with a professional management company and 246 other units in the building, I don’t feel guilty about doing nothing but paying assessments.

Ah, assessments: In the interest of balance, the negatives of high-rises should be mentioned. Because of the 24/7 door staff and other amenities, it is estimated that high-rise assessments exceed those in smaller buildings by 20 percent. Unless you don’t mind paying the higher assessments because you want all the amenities, chances are you’ll be paying for more amenities than you required. A doorman, pool, exercise room, business center, drycleaners, hospitality room, on-site management, and the other amenities here weren’t among my requirements, but I accept them as part of the package.

It’s been interesting to find that there is some basis to the stereotype about anonymity in high-rises. Except for a couple down the hall with whom I’ve become friends, a woman with whom I exchange cat-sitting, and a handful of other people I can call by name, all the other residents remain strangers. It mystifies me that in more than three years, I still haven’t met all of my ninth-floor neighbors at the elevator or the trash chute.

Months ago, a social committee here took an interest survey with the stated intention of connecting those who share interests. The only activity to result has been children’s play dates in the business center. (The committee chair has young children.) I want to play pinochle and emailed the couple who’d expressed an interest in pinochle on the survey; they never replied.

These few high-rise negatives are outweighed by the positives, and I am content. But I’m not going to gush about a high-rise’s being the only place I could live now. The truth is, I’m not that fussy, and I don’t really believe in a perfect home. If workable and within my budget, many styles of housing might suit me. It was only a high-rise, however, that could give me what I wanted most: downtown Chicago.

Filed under: Living downtown

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    Here's a good perspective of high-rise living: http://www.111eastchestnut.org/ .

  • I appreciate your writing, and I assume you are an owner resident at 111 E. Chestnut. I am sorry for all owners whose property's value isn't in line with the market. Yes, there are well-managed condo buildings and poorly managed ones. I'm fortunate to live in one that is well-managed. Buying a condo is a risk, but what's the alternative?

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