DOWNTOWN — Can you have a great family gathering if you don't have a great room?
If you're one of the thousands of Chicagoans living in less than 2,000 square feet in a Downtown high-rise, it's a quandary you might be facing as the holidays near.
Hosts Bill Hebrank and John Bowen, recent transplants from Baltimore into 500 N. Lake Shore Drive, were recently confronted with that problem.
Their new living arrangement suits them 364 days of the year: "We love the view from our unit, we loved our unit itself," Bowen said of their one-bedroom condo.
But at their Maryland two-bedroom, "we had a formal dining room, as well as a small living room. The kitchen wasn't much larger [than our current home], but we don't have a separate dining room. And in terms of people sitting down to eat, it's an open floor plan, so four is probably the maximum you can fit."
So when they started gearing up for their annual Thanksgiving blow-out bash — which this year has a double-digit guest list and a menu that includes turkey roulade with crimini, porcini, and pancetta and Bowen's seasonal "Cosmofallitan" cocktails — they realized they would have to get creative.
Their first step, shortly after settling in in September? Make an early reservation for the building's party room, "The Event," an open floor plan, multi-room space with a common area, a formal dining section — and a tightly-booked social calendar.
Steve Fifield, owner of Fifield Cos. and its K2 Tower at 365 N. Halsted St., says that shared event space in high-rises Downtown may take on special meaning around the holidays, "but year-round, it's getting used."
"K2, in the last 12 months, has rented out our party room 85 times," Fifield said. "So that means more than once a week, or about three times every two weeks, year-round."
"It gets used for everything: wedding showers, birthday parties, small, corporate entertainment, charity-type events."
At the recently opened 73 E. Lake St. between Wabash and Michigan avenues, "you see just about everything" in their multiple party rooms, according to M&R Development President Tony Rossi, whose company owns that tower.
"I was there one day, when, there must have been 20 guys in one of the rooms holding their fantasy football draft there, and the next day it was all decorated for a baby shower."
He says that growing tenancy Downtown, paired with the rising availability of smaller, cheaper units, is driving a up demand for sophisticated event spaces.
"Over the years, apartments are becoming a little bit smaller, from a cost perspective," Rossi said. "So I think, as some parts within the living space shrink, the use of common areas increases, because you find an excuse to get out of your small spaces."
From a cost perspective outside the tony Loop neighborhoods, the price tags for high-rises like 500 Lake Shore Drive and K2 may not seem that small.
Rent for a studio at K2 started at $1,650 per month when it opened in early 2013, and an 809-square-foot studio at 73 E. Lake St. starts at $2,280.
But when the Lake Shore Drive tower's party-friendly two-bed, two-bath penthouse will set you back $7,995 per month, the prospect of reserving a free, or cheap room just for Christmas morning drives a pretty hard bargain.
To use a shared room at K2, "what we charge is basically a clean-up fee," Fifield said. "So they get access to those [amenities] without having to go to a hotel, or restaurant, where they might charge you $500 to use a room for a day."
"We usually ask for like a $150 deposit, and if they leave the room a mess, and we have to pull in a professional cleaner the next morning," the price might go up. "Otherwise, it's a very low-cost option."
Hebrank and Bowen said they surveyed the shared entertaining spaces at every residential building they shopped before moving, knowing that downsizing their living space could bump some of their annual events into common rooms.
They say their top priority this Thanksgiving, as every year, is to make sure they're able to include everyone they know who needs an adoptive home on Thursday.
Hebrank calls their holiday guest lists "the island of misfit toys."
"We've found that we always end up having a few unexpected people, because they find themselves at loose ends at holidays, and we don't like people to be alone," he said. "So even if they aren't close friends, they're always welcome. That's how we ended up this year with, 12 maybe 14 people for dinner."
"We had a Christmas dinner in Baltimore that was supposed to be an intimate dinner for four or five, and we ended up having 11 or 12," Bowen said. "You don't want someone to be alone ... on nights like [Thanksgiving], friends become family."
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