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CHICAGO-While many in city hall view the proposed Jewelers Row district as their most significant landmark designation to date, a group of building owners say it would hamstring efforts to make their properties economically viable by attempting to preserve a shrinking industry. However, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is expected to recommend a two-block stretch of Wabash Avenue, encompassing 24 buildings, be designated a landmark.

The designation has won the consent of 17 property owners, but four object, including the Art Institute of Chicago. Located two blocks away on Michigan Avenue, the art museum also owns four buildings from 21-37 S. Wabash, with plans to redevelop them, says VP of operations Cal Audrain. Two of the buildings are usable only for their first-floor space, as the cost to rehab the upper floors is unfeasible, he says.

“The city is using one tool to preserve something that’s not architectural,” Audrain adds.

Former Chicago Historical Society curator Sharon Darling testified at a public hearing Friday that the jewelry trade is growing on Wabash Avenue. Saving the jewelry industry was something the city had to do, adds 42nd Ward Alderman Burton Natarus.

However, the silversmith trade can no longer be practiced at the Silversmith Building at 10 S. Wabash Ave., maintains Linda Nagle, an attorney for the owners of what is now a 143-room hotel after a “multi-million-dollar renovation.”

Property records indicate the 115,600-sf property was refinanced for $12.5 million in 1998. However, lenders may be pass in the future with landmark designation in place, Nagle argues.

Jerry Rosenwasser operates a jewelry business at the building he owns at 11 N. Wabash Ave., but he had hoped to double its height from three stories to six. That may not be possible in a landmark district.

Richard Zulkey, representing 17 N. Wabash Ave. owner Albert C. Ebert & Co. of Manalapan, FL, says landmark designation would do nothing do boost occupancy in the 66,000-sf building. Occupancy at The Shops building reportedly is 19%.

Architectural historian Timothy Samuelson says the designation is necessary to preserve uniquely Chicagoan building designs. “The whole history of Chicago architecture, from the Chicago Fire to World War I, is right there on Wabash Avenue,” he says.

Another reason, though, is to stop any ideas of converting buildings to condominiums, as was once proposed for the Pittsfield Building at 55 E. Washington St. “Developers, because of the market, were coming into this area and condoing it,” Natarus says.

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