James Loewenberg, standing in front of Lakeshore East
James Loewenberg (right) and Joel Carlins, the co-CEOs of Magellan Development Group

In this Deal Estate web exclusive, Jeff Bailey, a veteran business reporter who writes Chicago magazine’s “What I Was Thinking” column, interviews James R. Loewenberg, the co-CEO of Magellan Development Group and the president of Loewenberg Architects. Loewenberg, 76, sheds light on doing business in a recession and talks about his company’s most visible new additions to the Chicago skyline—Aqua, the Jeanne Gang–designed building-of-the-moment, which is part of Magellan’s ambitious Lakeshore East development (above).

You’ve built some 35,000 units of housing and have at times been lambasted by critics for erecting giant, bland towers, albeit ones with granite counters that sell briskly. Now you’ve developed one of the world’s most admired new buildings, the 82-story Aqua tower, but it seems the young architect you hired, Jeanne Gang, gets all the credit. Can’t a guy catch a break?
That’s OK. I like Jeanne. I’m very happy for her. She’s a nice kid.

What if it had turned out to be an eyesore?
I would have gotten hit for it.

Aqua is certainly more adventurous than the six towers that preceded it at your Lakeshore East development. Do you wish you’d busted out a little earlier?
It would have been very difficult for the market to accept a risky building as the first building. The other buildings weren’t tall enough to do it.

OK. Going back further: I’m a fan of how residential towers transformed the center of the city, but some—Presidential Towers, say—are grim. Your Grand Plaza of 2002, 56 stories on State Street, is the same tan concrete, with a massive, boxy base. Not so easy on the eye. Could we have done better?
I didn’t design the base. But I took all the shit for it. It was done by OWP/P. From a financial standpoint, forgetting about Lakeshore East, it was the most successful building we ever did. If I was an uneducated aesthete, I’d say, ‘Why the hell did you do this?’ I look at it pragmatically. We build to the people we serve. We deliver the goods.

You live in a high-rise?
Always. I grew up in one. When you walk in, you should be able to see out the windows. I tell my guys: two steps to daylight.

Aqua’s rental units are 98 percent occupied, you’ve closed on more than half the condos, just signed up a hotel, yet the economy has been dreadful.
We closed the loan in August 2007. Had we waited 60 days, I don’t think we could’ve held the bank syndicate together. We’re very happy.

Post-Aqua, is it back to standard-issue buildings at Lakeshore East?
No. It’s going to be tough to top that building. But we hired Arquitectonica, the Miami firm, and they designed a building that straddles the street. We were ready to go. Thank God we never started. A great market opportunity, in the next two or three years, after you get through the overhanging inventory.

You and Joel Carlins, your co-CEO at Magellan, have been working together for more than 20 years. Do you quarrel?
All the time. We respect each other. We have our own strengths. Thank God they’re not the same strengths.

How do you end a spat?
We say enough is enough. Our enjoyment is getting things done.

Most guys your age in real estate have been bankrupt twice. How have you kept out of trouble?
Luck. Don’t do stupid things. Don’t be a jerk. I know when to say no to a deal. With Lakeshore East, we were lucky. We put our chips down at the right time.

76 years old—retiring any time soon?
No. I have so many friends who are retired, and they’re the unhappiest people in the world.

Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia