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Technology replaces brawn in Ravenswood corridor

Joe Hayes Hayes Properties Inc. poses for photograph by wall windows atrium his building 4043 N. Ravenswood Ave. Tuesday June

Joe Hayes of Hayes Properties, Inc., poses for a photograph by a wall of windows at the atrium of his building at 4043 N. Ravenswood Ave. Tuesday, June 21, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:41AM

The Ravenswood corridor has evolved into an informal technology incubator, as web-development startups sit side-by-side with fast-growing, established companies such as Guaranteed Rate, dubbed the Google of the mortgage industry, and NogginLabs, a custom-learning software developer.
The former industrial corridor, running along North Ravenswood, from Wellington to Peterson, sports redeveloped commercial space designed for entrepreneurs and companies whose work cultures require large, open loft spaces.
Joe Hayes, whose Hayes Properties is headquartered in the former Manz printing company building at 4043 N. Ravenswood, owns 750,000 square feet of commercial space in the corridor.
“No one had converted these industrial buildings to work for small, modern companies,” said Hayes, whose firm has reroofed, sandblasted and reconfigured the clock-towered warehouse-like plants into high-ceilinged, sunlit-filled, exposed-brick-walled and hardwood-floored lofts.
Technology-based companies occupy about one-third of Hayes’ holdings and employ about 450 people, based on average employees per square foot. The corridor’s biggest boast is alumnus SkinnyCorp, the parent company of online T-shirt design innovator Threadless, which got its start with 20 employees in an 8,000-square-foot space at 5225 N. Ravenswood before moving to a 25,000-square-foot space at 4043 N. Ravenswood. Now with more than $30 million in yearly revenues and about 100 employees, Threadless is headquartered in the West Loop.
Many of the tech companies in the Ravenswood corridor lease 2,000 to 4,000 square feet for $16 a square foot annually, excluding utilities. That compares with roughly $20 a foot downtown, excluding operating expenses such as proportionate shares of insurance, maintenance and property taxes. The companies include web designers, software developers, Internet connectivity providers, telecom network service providers and software-as-a-service developers.
The rest of the Hayes-owned Ravenswood space comprises architects, attorneys, real-estate firms and studios dedicated to yoga, Tai Chi and even ballroom dancing.
The average tenant has outgrown his or her basement or second bedroom and needs 1,000 to 1,200 square feet to establish a professional office, Hayes said.
“There is great demand for quality office space with decent heat and air-conditioning, where a business owner can bring a client without having to walk past a sleeping dog or deal with constant interruptions,” he said.
The buildings have stayed leased throughout the recession because they represent the way so many people will live and work in the future, Hayes said.
That means being an integral part of the community; creating new and evolving business models, and walking, biking or taking public transit to work. The Ravenswood corridor sits between a Metra line and CTA tracks, and is within walking distance of restaurants and coffee shops.
David Wachtendonk, who runs event-hosting and planning company Murder Mystery Maniacs at 3717 N. Ravenswood, loves the “new blood” that startup companies bring to the space. “You don’t have to be at 600 W. Chicago Ave. [Groupon headquarters] to do interesting things with technology,” he said.
Guaranteed Rate, an 11-year-old, Chicago-based mortgage originator known for its collaborative workspace, employee chef, massage therapist, paperless operations and Realtor software tools, has grown from 15 to 1,200 employees. Of the total, 180 work at the headquarters at 3940 N. Ravenswood, where the company occupies 80 percent of a three-story, 100,000-square-foot building.
“Chicago is our strongest market and our hub, and we are hiring locally,” said Joe Phalen, the company’s director of business development.
Traci Knudson, co-owner with husband Brian of NogginLabs, started the company 14 years ago in a 3,000-square-foot office at 4619 N. Ravenswood, developing online employee training and learning programs. Two years ago, the company blew a hole through the floor and installed a spiral staircase to double its space. It employs 70 and continues to grow.
Three quarters of the staff walks, bikes or takes public transportation to work, Traci Knudson said. “We love Ravenswood because it has a nice, neighborhood feel, lots of lunch options and easy access to public transit.”

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