Should I Move to Marina City?

(Photo: The view from here. Credit: Looper.)

(Update 3/17/14) Welcome visitors from Reddit. I moved on from Marina City and downtown Chicago in 2012. (Click the link to read why.) At the time I wouldn’t have recommended moving into the complex. However, in 2013 Marina City’s corrupt, awful condo board was finally and decisively voted out. I only wish I had been there to watch it happen.

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“Tell me the truth: should I move to Marina City?” If there’s one question I hear more than any other, it’s that one. Over the past year, Chicago Carless has become a go-to site for information about life here at the corncobs — in all its sometimes glorious and sometimes gory details. Because of this, I get a fair amount of email from people facing an opportunity to own or rent here. With goings-on of the caliber that I’ve journaled at Marina City in the past year, I don’t blame anyone for wanting help to identify their comfort zone with the towers.

Whenever I hear that fateful question, I find myself wishing I could offer a definite answer. But everyone’s circumstances and tolerance levels are different. And I certainly shouldn’t be the person to decide how anyone else should use their personal finances. I can’t speak for the condo board or for my fellow residents, nor would it be my place to do so. But what I can offer are my own observations and opinions about the towers based on my experience as a resident, in terms of my personal comfort zone.

With that in mind, below are the most frequent questions I hear from people deciding whether to take the plunge and move into Marina City, a mix of the general and the probing. If you’re considering living here at the towers, I hope you find this post useful. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

First of all, where is Marina City?
Marina City is located in the River North neighborhood of downtown Chicago, immediately north of the Loop across the Chicago River, on the block bounded by State Street on the east, Dearborn Street on the west, Kinzie Street on the north, and the river on the south. The street address of Marina City is 300 N. State Street, Chicago, IL 60610 60654 (new ZIP code as of July 1, 2008).

It all looks like parking from the street. How high up the towers do the apartments start?
A small but prominent marina occupies the “marina level” beneath the towers. Immediately above, residents enter each tower via keycard from a staffed lower-level lobby area or an unstaffed plaza-level entrance. A valet parking ramp runs between the plaza level and the 19th floor. The 20th floor of each tower houses the laundry and storage rooms for the condominium units.

The residences extend from floors 21 through 60. Studios and one-bedroom units occupy floors 21 through 52, with 53 through 60 given over to one- and two-bedroom units, exclusively. The roof of each tower is considered to be the 61st floor and is an unobstructed, circular roofdeck open to all residents.

Residential floors are accessed by a central bank of five elevators. Two low-rise elevators serve floors 21 through 40. Two high-rise elevators serve floors 41 through 60. A service elevator stops on all residential floors. All elevators serve the lower and plaza levels and the 20th floor, but only the high-rise and service elevators serve the roofdeck and only the service elevator stops on the marina level. There are no stops on the parking ramp.

Is it really as “ghetto” as I’ve been hearing?
Well, no. And yes. It depends on how you interpret things. The rumored 1980s heyday of daily thefts of clothing from the laundry room and overnight drug deals in the lobby is long gone. However, that doesn’t mean that problems do not remain, as a read through of this post and my Marina City and Gary Kimmel Scandal archives may demonstrate for you.

What are the neighbors like? What is the socioeconomic makeup of the building?
I think the greatest asset of Marina City is its diversity of residents. Perhaps more than most downtown residential towers, Marina City has a great deal of variety and history in the people who call the corncobs home. There are many residents who have lived here since the towers first opened in the mid-1960s, as well as longtime residents from every decade since then. Racial and ethnic diversity are both strong. Most people here are professionals, however there are many retirees and students, and a few families with children.

As you might expect, students and residents of apparently lesser means tend to gravitate toward units on the lower floors, especially the 20s, and these floors have something of a reputation for frat-like rowdiness. However, as with any building, considerate and annoying neighbors are pretty much scattered throughout. I think the real point to take from Marina City’s diversity is that the towers may read like exclusive enclaves from the street, but inside they’re really a surprisingly good representation of the residents you might see on an average Chicago city block.

More important to consider might be the fact that approximately half of Marina City’s units are rentals, a markedly high proportion for a high-rise residential tower. Some residents have found the high proportion of rentals to have made it difficult for them to secure a mortgage to buy a unit here. On the other hand, the numerous rental units add immeasurably to the building’s mix of residents.

Given that the towers are made out of concrete, what, if any, are the noise problems?
With concrete ceilings and floors and astoundingly sturdy plaster walls, most sound does not make it through. Unfortunately, in my experience, vibration (think: subwoofers), construction noise, and the clunk of anything dropped on a hard floor above all transmit very well. And while you may not be able to hear your neighbors talk, you will be able to hear them yell and scream, should they choose to do so. Moreover, any loud party on a balcony can be heard from dozens of balconies away, and if the balcony in question faces the other tower, the din echoes between both towers for all to hear. Building security is there to be called on, as needed, to verify noise issues and take complaints. However, this is one building where many residents are not shy about calling 911, either.

Okay, I’ve heard all about the hooker scandal. Are Marina City’s residential towers safe and secure?
Speaking as a resident, I don’t think they’re as safe as they could be. I have frequently witnessed security staff buzzing people into both elevator lobbies without checking identification, and have witnessed broken interior (laundry room) and exterior (plaza level) keycard locks that have remained broken–and accessible by all–for days.

However, things have improved from last year when a rarely sober painter who happened to be the brother-in-law to the condo board president was given free rein–and apparently keycards–to sleep in unoccuppied units and do maintenance work in the building with the assistance of street people (in one instance, he inserted himself without my permission into a group of building staff who were entering my unit to deal with a flooding problem). Since the breaking of the Gary Kimmel Scandal this painter has been conspicuous in his absence, and most people I’ve spoken with assume he’s been at long last nixed from the premises.

Marina City is more than four decades old. How well are the towers maintained? Have there been any major maintenance problems?
Like all Chicago high-rises, Marina City undergoes a critical facade inspection every few years (the most recent occurring this year). In addition, it appears to me that the maintenance staff does a good job of cleaning the common areas and attending to minor complaints. However, critical system failures have taken place in just the year I’ve been here, including repeated water pump failures, flooding, and malfunctioning or simply unused fire alarms in both towers, and some residents have complained that a recent, costly roof renovation is not handling the elements well. Many residents who post to the Marina Watchdog, an independent residents blog, have attributed the aforementioned problems to choosing lowest-bid contractor proposals.

Finally, while it is not a maintenance problem per se, it is worth nothing that in the past year there have been more than a dozen fires and/or smoke conditions throughout the towers, several due to residents throwing burning charcoal embers down the garbage chutes, and one complete unit burnout caused by a carelessly ignored candle in the low (you guessed it) 20s.

I’ve heard that it’s difficult to fit standard furniture into Marina City’s triangular apartments. Is that true?
No. The “pointiest” part of each apartment wedge–the interior–is given over to closets, bathrooms, and kitchens. The living areas and bedrooms all lie adjacent to the outer window walls of each unit. Your walls won’t meet at 90 degrees if you live here, but they will meet at comfortable, shallow angles, not sharp ones. This actually allows you to be more creative in the placement of your furniture, and gives you a better opportunity to orient your furniture towards the view than would a strict rectangular layout.

Are there washers and dryers in the units at Marina City?
No. The plumbing and ventilation infrastructure cannot support standard washers and dryers. Each tower has a 1,500-square-foot laundry room on the 20th floor with a panoramic view of the Loop and the river and a combined almost four-dozen washers and dryers. As of this writing, washer loads cost $1.50 and dryer loads $1.25, payable with a refillable electronic debit card. Unlike some residential Chicago high-rises, residents of Marina City are not required to use a specific elevator when traveling through the building with laundry.

If I move to Marina City, where can I park?
You’re kidding, right?

If I move to Marina City, how easy would it be for me to go carless, too?
Very. Services and amenities in downtown Chicago are densely packed, as are transit options. Most residents of Marina City do their local errands by walking. In addition, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses 22 (northbound), 29, 36, and 62 stop directly in front of the towers, and all downtown ‘L’ lines (the Blue, Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, Purple, and Red lines) are within a five-minute walk, via the State/Lake and Clark/Lake CTA stations.

Does Marina City have an official website?
Surprisingly for 2006, no. However, I have linked a great deal of resources regarding the background and history of Marina City in my previous post, Reflecting on Marina City.

Does Marina City have an official real-estate broker office?
No, and I can’t stress this point strongly enough. There is no official broker office for Marina City sales and rentals. Although a broker office bearing the name of “Marina Management” and the web address of “marina-city.com” is located in the lower level, this office is an independent entity and is not the exclusive source for Marina City sales and rental opportunities (a direct quote from the footer of Marina Management’s website, emphasis in original: “Marina Management is an independently owned real estate sales and rental brokerage firm located in the lobby of Marina City. MARINA MANAGEMENT CORPORATION is NOT affiliated with Marina Towers Condominium Association.“). Numerous independent brokers do business in the towers, including several who live here as resident owners, and FSBOs and direct rentals are common.

When I moved here, I considered all of these options, including Marina Management (whose brokers showed me several apartments), but in the end settled on a direct rental from an owner who had advertised independently on craigslist.

Do you personally own or rent, and why?
I rent. I moved into Marina City as a renter to get the lay of the land and consider whether I would feel comfortable purchasing here. Given the history of problems since I’ve been here, including the Gary Kimmel prostitution scandal and a publicly disclosed lawsuit against the condominium association and Marina Management by a group of unhappy resident owners, at this point in time I do not feel at all comfortable making the long-term financial commitment that purchasing a unit in Marina City would entail. Until I feel more comfortable about the state of affairs at the towers, I will remain a renter.

Indeed, due to the same concerns, after months of back-and-forth consideration, my boyfriend, Devyn, a noted architectural photographer who would like nothing more than to live in a structure as significant as Marina City, decided to purchase a new condo somewhere else, instead.

What else can I do to get more background information about Marina City before I buy/rent?
Interview everyone you can about the building, in detail. Be direct in your questions, probe for honest answers, and consider carefully what you hear in response. When I moved here, I discussed the building and its history of problems with numerous real-estate agents (working both within and outside the building), potential landlords, and potential neighbors (next to, above, and below) before I went ahead and signed a lease. I heard answers that I believed to be true, I heard answers that I found rather suspect, and I used them both to help me find my comfort zone about the building. And after all I had heard about Marina City even before I moved in, anyone who dismissed my questions or told me point blank that Marina City had no problems earned my immediate suspicion.

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There you have it. Given all of the above, I can understand how some people might be put off by Marina City, while others would be attracted to the challenge. As for me, I’m much more in the latter camp. I have no intention of leaving Marina City anytime soon.

Then again, knowing how quickly things change here, I’m not making any promises, either.

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