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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.

Categories: Marina City Should I Move to Marina City?

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

7 replies

  1. Forgive me, I realize your Marina City years are well behind you but I have a quick question that I can’t find an answer to despite having both Googled and actually asked around. It’s as simple as wanting to know the ceiling height—not including any of the distinctive curved detailing, just the main flat part of the ceiling at its highest point.

    I’ve read lots of people’s comments online about the ceiling height being ‘low’ the meaning of ‘low’ was not specified. I always assumed that meant 8 feet—standard a few decades back, low by today’s standards. 8 feet I can live with, particularly in exchange for a big balcony. But I’ve been browsing various photos on Zillow, Redfin, etc., and although those can’t be taken as gospel thanks to distortions from wide angle lenses and just some generally crap photography, I’ve started to worry it could be even lower—7’6″? Surely not 7′?

    The reason I ask this question on a blog rather than just going to view one of the flats is that I’m in the process of relocating to Chicago, and won’t be there for several months still. I’m attracted to Marina City for many of the reasons you outlined in this post, like the broad socioeconomic representation and the ability to live carless in the city center without being a rich bitch. Still, if the ceilings are any lower than 8 feet, for me that would be something to think about.

    Thanks for this blog.

  2. To Answer Should I move to Marina City:

    I am an owner.

    We, my boyfriend and I, rented before we bought. I have suggested to other people who asked me if they should buy here. Rent first.

    There are things to know about the units before buying:

    If you are buying a non renovated unit You will probably need to do some work in your bathroom. The original bathrooms have this great 1/2″ x 1/2″ tile which unfortunately was a paper back faced tile system, and in the location where there are grab bars, and at the interface of the tub, water got in behind the tile and deteriorated the mortar bed to sand. If you want to retile it will be quite a task, I am an architect, so I wanted to keep the origianl tile so we are in the process of basically restoring the tile areas where the mortar has been comnpromised. If you retile it will be a process of chipping off all the old tile and having to deal with the nasty old mortar base.

    The tubs are custom, they are longer than standard tubs, The toilets are smaller than standard, but gerber makes a model that will fit. Most of the money for the original baths must have been spent on the tile because the original vanities look like what a design professional would call a value engineered item, with open drawers. The medicine cabinets seem like a nice design concept poorly executed.

    The building is concrete, all concrete. concrete walls everywhere so construction or demolition is more complex. All your wiring is encased in the concrete block walls and slab. Unfortunately when you buy you are not given any plans on where the wiring is. There are a handfull of contractors doing remodelling in the building, which may seem like a bit of a racket, but my colleagues that live in Mies buildings say this is quite common, since these contractors will know the building better than someone just coming in.

    You have to pull a permit to do work in the building, which is also common. Original kitchens have GE metal cabinets which are cool, but they probably also have years of grime in them. We are torn between restoring these or putting in all new are still gettng quotes on refinishing these. We are still saving up to do our renovation work, and hope to do much of it ourselves, so I can not give you accurate costs for remodelling.

    As far as furnishing, the only thing to consider is that with circular hallways you are limited to the length of furniture pieces you can get into your apartment.

    In terms of the buildings, unit owners own their windows and doors that face out to the balconies. The glazing system is a simple stick system, and I am told it costs about $300 to re-glaze a (window pane). The original window system does not filter noise like newer curtain wall systems due to 1/4″ airspace between the glass, so noise is an issue, especially from the local fire station. I have heard that some owner have repaced their windows with new window systems.

    Special assements are a big concern with all condo buildings. Most older condo at some point need to have exterior wall replacement and depending on the building wall design this could be expensive. Since Marina city is basically concrete and unit owners own their windows this should not be an issue for the Association if the concrete is inspected and maintained.

    One of the most expensvie components in a high-rise is the elevators. The elevators were recently replaced, but have been out now and again for service.

    We did not have any flooding in our unit, and I was unaware that this happened, and will have to find out what this is all about.

    About Scandals and Security, since about one third of the units in Marina Towers are studios there are a lot of rentals, there are students etc. living here. Since I do not live on the lower floors where most of the renters are, I guess I do not experience the rowdy neighbor problem.

    The whole prostitution scandal does not really concern me. I do not feel any less safe.

    Why we bought here:

    One major reason that we decided to buy here is that the condos are very affordable, and super convenient. The assements are lower than most condo buildings because the condo association does not own the retail space below. Normally in a condo building the cleaners, garage, etc. are a burden on the association.

    I sold my car when I moved here. I walk to work, the grocery store. Millennium Park is my backyard.

    Just down the river will be the premier condo building in a couple of years. Since I work for a big architecture firm I know that the city is continuing to improve access to the river, which will only improve the value of my condo.

    Finally we think it is a cool place to live. We love sitting out on the balcony and having the tour boat go by and seeing tourists taking photos. We always feel right in the middle of all the action in the city, whether watching a White Sox victory rally from our balcony, or the Blue Angels flying at the same level of the 61st floor roof deck.

    Again I would rent before you buy, so you can see if this is where you want to call home.

    1. Hello. My name is Dave, I live at 1400 N lake Shore Dr. I ave livd in the Gold Coast for 7 years but i am 46 and have liveds in the city for all my years. I have always wanted to live in the “Corn Cobs” 🙂 Anyhow… your review was great but i have one question…… Can you give me a general idea about the amount of rent for a 2 bedroom?? If you have the time i would really appreciate it.

      Thanks alot!
      Dave Brown

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