“They’re obviously paying for upkeep, trash, landscaping and whatever else,” Stenzel says. “It looks fine. I know, first-world problems, right?”
The building is up to date on its property taxes. In the past 20 years, according to Cook County records, the owners have paid a total of just over $1 million. Last year’s bill was $73,176.
The tax bill is mailed to John Brown, a real estate investor who over the years has run firms called Belden Properties, JAB Properties and Ashton Properties, listed phone numbers for which have been disconnected or do not answer. Crain’s reached out to Brown via mail and through the last phone number the Department of Buildings has for him, from some 2013 paperwork, but Brown did not respond.
Brown has owned the building since 1990, either in his name or in the name of one or more legal entities called JAB, according to the Cook County clerk. What he paid for it is not clear from the records.
Signs of the building being occupied are scant. Few windows have curtains or other coverings, the wrought-iron gate on Dearborn and a gate between garage doors on the alley are padlocked, and on a few walk-bys in the past few weeks, a Crain’s reporter saw only a few lights on in the left side of the third and fourth floors. The conditions are essentially the same as when the same reporter checked the building a decade ago.
The Chicago Tribune reported in 2005 that the building “has been vacant for about 10 years.” As it’s been empty or mostly so ever since, it seems the vacancy now stretches to 28 years.
In the 2005 article—for which Brown declined to comment—the Tribune reported that the building, which at some point in the past was a 50-room hotel, was being converted to condominiums when its west side, the street face, collapsed.
That portion was later rebuilt, and what’s seen from the sidewalk now is a classic Chicago facade of brick and stone with inset balconies.
In the 2006 permit for rebuilding the facade, Brown’s firm also got permission to convert the building from 27 dwelling units down to 10 and to update the electrical plumbing and climate systems. Five years later, a permit was issued for a new elevator.
Since then, crickets.
“It’s a nice-looking building. Everyone wonders about it,” says Nancy Joyce, an @properties agent who lives in Old Town but passes the house, on a block where she used to live, often.
Theories abound, but Crain’s could not document any of them.
If the building is buttoned-up and clean, does it matter that nobody seemingly lives there? It shows no signs of blight or becoming a house where drug deals and worse go down.
Stenzel sees it as a loss of potential property tax revenue for the city. That may be true, but it’s hard to calculate given that many details about the building are opaque.
Kinney estimated that the units in the building would, “bare minimum, start at $500,000, $600,000,” based largely on location, because the interior finishes, if there are any, aren’t known.
Nearby condos that have sold in the past six months in that price range have an average tax bill of about $9,500, Crain’s calculated. If the 10 units in the ghost building all had a tax bill that size, the annual bill would be about $95,000, compared to last year’s $73,000 bill.
But this estimate is limited by the lack of information. It’s possible some or all of the units would have higher bills.
Much about the building remains a mystery, particularly why Brown has kept the building empty for so long and how he can afford to do so.
In the meantime, Joyce says, “isn’t it fascinating to wonder what exactly is going on there?”
Read More:Gold Coast building empty for decades