Nice to see a bit of optimism being thrown around

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Got $300,000 sitting around to invest in downtown real estate? Like fine old historic properties? How about the long-vacant downtown Chicago post office, once the world’s largest such facility?

As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, it’ll be going up for auction on Aug. 27, and the minimum bid is $300,000.

The building, constructed between 1921 and 1932, consists of nine massive stories, flanked by two 14-story towers.

According to the Times, “the imposing neoclassical lobby at the north end of the building, which has cream-colored marble walls and an elaborate inlaid marble floor, is certainly a stunner: 340 feet long and 40 feet wide, with a towering 38-foot ceiling.” A fitting entry for your start-up business, I’d think, and you’d have plenty of space to expand — 2.7 million square feet, to be exact.

There’s no reserve, so if there are no other bidders you’ll acquire the grand old pile for 11 cents a square foot.

Chicago real estate sources, as quoted by the Times, were notably pessimistic about the deal, despite the price. They saw it as an enormous white elephant, costly to own and maintain, and without any apparent future use.

What does that prove? Not much, except that when real estate meets reality, we all lose.

Many, if not most, of our country’s iconic buildings were created by frenzied real estate speculation.

In New York, both the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were the products of the 1920s. Had the market crashed during 1927 instead of 1929, neither would have been built. And even our nation’s capital is a monument to speculation, this time by the Founding Fathers, who decided to build the new nation’s capital in a fetid tidewater swamp.

The great buildings of Colorado Springs were built by happy optimists, and torn down by sour pessimists. Bad economies mean that the treasures of the past, like the Chicago post office, become functionally obsolete tear-downs.

Twenty years ago, in the midst of a local real estate meltdown very similar to the one we’re now experiencing, a few lonely preservationists sought to save the then-vacant Cheyenne Building from the wrecker’s ball.

By some miracle, they succeeded — but not before City Councilman Frank Parisi had told them, “I don’t know why you boys are bothering with that old pile of bricks — it’s just bulldozer bait.”

Like the Cheyenne Building, the Mining Exchange Building looked a lot like bulldozer bait a few months ago. Investors led by Ray Marshall (does that name sound familiar?) had acquired it, as well as the adjacent Independence and Freeman Telegraph buildings, planning to transform them into lofts.

They kicked out most of the tenants, gutted the interiors and … the deal fell apart.

One of Marshall’s erstwhile partners, former Louisiana trial lawyer Perry Sanders, picked up the pieces and started over.

As we’ve reported before, Sanders plans to create a luxury boutique hotel from the wreckage of the failed deal. He’s torn off the dismal travertine slabs that were tacked on to the building 45 years ago, revealing splendid granite columns and arches.

The granite façade, which appears to have originated from the same quarry as the granite that graces the post office across Nevada Avenue, isn’t just a façade — it’s the bones of the building. The columns and arches continue through to the interior, where rough-hewn surfaces have been concealed by plaster for a century.

Sanders is buoyant, optimistic, even manic about his deal. Asked how much it’ll cost, he said: “It’s not gonna be hundreds of thousands — it’ll be a lot of millions. And we’re gonna get it done.”

It had been a while since I’d heard a developer talk like that. It’s been gloom, doom, lawsuits, vacant lots, foreclosures and bankruptcies. The development community deals well with floods but, like so many catfish stranded in a dried-up pond, less well with drought.

So maybe Sanders’ optimism is a sign that the good times may be returning, and with them a modest revival of our fading downtown.

And who knows — if Sanders can put the Mining Exchange deal together by the 27th of this month, maybe he ought to take a look at that Chicago post office …

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.