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Uptown in the News  

December 2003
Illinois Real Estate Journal
Balancing Act
Uptown Square is near completion and the keys for a portion of it have been turned over to Borders, opening a new chapter for the Uptown neighborhood, one supporters hope will bring about a much-needed revitalization to a former vibrant center of Chicago.
By Brian T. Sutton

During the 1920s a leading department store in the city was the Loren Miller & Co. store, which offered "reliable merchandise." Miller opened a five-story store in the middle of the triangle in Uptown formed by Broadway and Lawrence on the southern end and Broadway and Racine on the northern.

A decade later, Miller picked up the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank north of his store, a two-story neo-classical building at the tip of the triangle portion of the block formed by the crossing of Broadway and Racine.

He dubbed the block Uptown Square in a slight nod to Times Square and, as a booster pushing for the neighborhood's development, he encouraged the entire district to be called Uptown, a jazzier name than Wilson Avenue District, the one hung around the area's neck at the time.

With the Green Mill, Aragon Ballroom, and Riviera Theater, Uptown Theater and others, the Uptown neighborhood was the entertainment heart beat of the region.

By 1931 the Loren Miller store was acquired by Maurice and Nathan Goldblatt, which was rapidly its own namesake retail chain, which was launched in 1914 with a store near Chicago and Milwaukee avenues. The Miller store became the sixth Goldblatt's store.

In 1933, still a booster for the area, Miller lobbied to have the World's Fair along the Uptown lakefront; it was held in Burnham Park near downtown.

Though that decision was important in the shift of influence in the city, it wasn't until following World War II, when Uptown experienced a population shift with residents moving to the suburbs, that the area began falling into disrepair. Downtown and other areas became entertainment and shopping focal points and the neighborhood's bright star faded.

According to Goldblatt's history, the chain reached 43 stores by the mid-1970's, but in 1981 it declared bankruptcy. While Goldblatt's remains a retailer in the Chicago region, the Uptown store closed and was shuttered in the mid-1990's.


Now years, different plans and several delays later, national retail powerhouse Borders is finalizing its space buildout of a 25,000 square foot store at the Racine and Broadway as construction nears completion on Uptown Square, a $24.3 million redevelopment of the block into a 125,000 square foot mixed-use project featuring of 39,275 square feet of retail and 37 condos by Joseph Freed and Associates LLC.

The architect on the project is Hartshorne & Plunkard with Leopardo Cos., the general contractor. Wiss Janney Elstner is overseeing the repair of the existing exteriors.

The landing of Borders helped designate the area as a tax increment financing district and made the project viable. The city provided $7 million in TIF money, calculated at 29 percent of the total project costs. Because eight of the lofts were designated affordable housing, the Department of Housing (DOH) and the Freed company provided $630,000 to write down the costs of the eight units.

The units were sold to qualified individuals and a portion of the TIF money that went to the project also went to restoring and renovating the SRO across the street adding more affordable units there. In total, about 25 of the lofts have been sold. T Mobile and Planet Smoothie have also signed for space totaling about 3,000 square feet.

The three-building site is made up of the former two-story bank turned department store on the corner of Broadway and Racine, which Borders will occupy, the middle building, which is the original five-story terra cotta former Goldblatt's/Loren Miller store, which will have Borders on the first floor, additional retail on the second and lofts on floors three through five, and a new building replacing the former Plymouth Hotel at Broadway and Leland. The new building is a 17,000 square foot structure housing both retail and lofts.

With financing assistance in place, the task was then to take the tired old buildings near ruins and transform them into state of the art retail and housing.

Chief among the $2 million exterior restoration, is working with the terra cotta pieces, which as construction wraps on the project, the small details of cleaning, refitting or replacing terra cotta are consuming the most time.

The terra cotta was taken down individually, numbered, cleaned, repaired and if unable to be repaired replaced by GFRC synthetic terra cotta to match. Following that, the bank building, which was brown with soot, is now its original golden orange and looks best shining in the sun.

The exterior rehab was done according to the U.S. Department of Interior historic preservation guidelines and what is permitted for Chicago landmarks.

On the tip of the triangle, when the old Goldblatt's sign was taken down it revealed pieces of old, damaged two-story Corinthian columns. To replace them, molds were made and two new two-story columns were built.

Added to the site was parking for the residents in the portions of basement along with a couple of loading docks.

That may sound typical, but the construction itself was a challenge since it is in a tightly packed neighborhood with two major intersections with heavy traffic.

But that traffic is part of what drew Borders to Uptown as well as demographics, the availability of parking and the attractiveness of the site.

The city sites daily traffic counts at each Lawrence and Broadway and Broadway and Racine of 50,000 vehicles. Also overlooking the store is the Lawrence CTA Red Line stop.

"The Goldblatt's building is gorgeous and we've taken great care to preserve this historical landmark," said Randy Rohde, regional director for the Lincoln Park and Uptown stores, in a release. "In the last few years, Uptown has been redeveloped into a first-rate residential and entertainment quarter."

Architect Ray Hartshorne says that when he first toured the three buildings making up the block he was astonished at the rough condition of the space.

"Those buildings were sitting vacant for years and really deteriorating every winter," he says. "I thought it was a C minus condition. The building was taking on water and when those old terra cotta buildings take on water it can reek havoc. The reinforcement steel had rusted out. In some cases we found holes in the steel columns in the corners of the building so big you could stick your head through."

That was in the third building, the Plymouth hotel at Leland and Broadway, which was not structurally sound.

Ultimately the decision was made to tear it down rather than preserve it with the other two buildings. It was not a popular decision among preservationists. The hotel was where Charlie Chaplin filmed his first movie in 1915.

The hotel, Hartshorne says, was supposed to have a floor load of 75 pounds per square foot, but testing indicated a floor load of 30 pounds per square foot. In addition, there was a water tower in the middle of the hotel's roof that had leaked, causing irreparable damage to the building. It is being replaced by the new 17,000 square foot brick building.

Regardless of the reasoning, the Broadway Terrace Development Corp. filed an injunction in court against Freed, but was denied, as was its appeal.

The group charged that the action proved Freed was not interested in preservation.

But Hartshorne, a founding member of a multifunctional architectural firm known among other things for its careful historical preservation and resoration projects, disagrees with that sentiment.

"There was a lot of criticism of that decision to tear it down. Even I was a little disappointed we couldn't save the third building, but we bent over backwards to preserve the beautiful terra cotta buildings here and in the end we couldn't save the Plymouth," he says. "Overall, the project addressed a lot of concerns: it is providing affordable housing, it is preserving the integrity of the buildings and is bringing viable retail to the site that had been abandoned.

"It's important to understand that Freed approached this project from the standpoint that it's a preservation project of the original buildings, but that it's also part of a revitalization of this area, a recognition that that block is an important location, a city center.

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