Joel M. Carlins, co-chief executive officer with Chicago-based developer Magellan Group, spent his early years engaged in the intangibles inherent in the practice of law. Once a case or consultancy concluded, all that remained were files he stored in an office cabinet.
An encounter with the Salvation Army in the 1990s changed all of that. By then, Carlins had consulted building owners, designers and contractors, in addition to numerous area banks. He had also begun dabbling in construction, including the redevelopment of a rapid transit station. The Salvation Army wanted to know what he thought it should do with a small building it owned on a slender parcel on Chicago's Gold Coast.
Carlins' advice: Sell it and consolidate operations at a second location the Salvation Army owned. Organization officials inquired who might purchase the parcel and Carlins replied any of a number of potential interests. Then, they queried: What about Carlins himself? Would he be interested in buying it?
"A light went off," says Carlins. "I'd never built anything downtown."
The Salvation Army drove a hard bargain, but Carlins acquiesced, and up went a 26-story, 185-apartment building on the site. A nearby condominium followed. Since then, perhaps no other developer has exercised a more transformative effect on downtown Chicago than Magellan, an 18-year-old enterprise whose apartment towers, mixed-use and commercial projects have helped transfigure large swaths of the city's central business district into places to live, work, shop and recreate.
Since its inception, Magellan has completed 20 residential high-rises and more than 6,600 residential units, in addition to more than 517,000 sq ft of commercial space, the majority in Chicago's Gold Coast and Streeterville neighborhoods.
The enterprise initially focused on emergent entertainment districts such as River North, infilling them with attractive residences that cemented their status as neighborhoods.
"When a building was large enough, we'd always include retail or some other commercial component," Carlins recalls. In time, Magellan set its sights east, nearer to Lake Michigan. "Our philosophy was the closer to water the better, even if it was more expensive to build there," says Carlins. "People like to be near water, near parks, so those parcels held the potential to be more profitable ventures."
A decade ago, Magellan made the leap from infilling neighborhoods to constructing one from the ground up. The idea came to Carlins, he says, while he was playing a round of golf at Metro Golf Center, a nine-hole recreational oddity shoehorned among office towers lining Chicago's lakefront.
"One day," he told ENR Midwest in 2011, "I looked around and asked myself, 'What is this doing here?'"