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CHICAGO-Rather than defacing the Jeweler’s Row landmark district, a 71-story condominium tower at the northeast corner of Wabash Avenue and Monroe Street will be a “stunning addition” to the East Loop skyline, plan commission members agreed Thursday. Mesa Development’s $300-million, 353-unit project will add 8,500 sf of ground-floor retail space, 41,000 sf for the School of the Art Institute on the next two floors, 460 parking spaces in nine stories of parking and an 18,000-sf athletic club on the 13th and 14th floors.

Mesa Development founder Richard A. Hanson expects to begin construction next year, with completion likely in 2010. However, the project still needs city council approval, and his Monroe/Wabash Development LLC must acquire the four-building property from the Art Institute, which uses some of the space for classrooms, administrative offices and storage. Although Hanson is talking with a syndicate of banks about financing, he expects there likely will be a pre-sale requirement in the 35% to 50% range for his condos, which will average between $400 per sf to $500 per sf. “We have a long way to go yet,” he adds.

Although the 57-story reinforced concrete, aluminum and glass triangular condominium tower will sit atop of the retail space, parking garage, classrooms and athletic club, facades at 21-39 S. Wabash Ave. and 52-64 E. Monroe St. will be preserved. However, opponents criticize the 822-foot height of the new building, as well as nearly 1 million sf of mixed-use space.

“If an 800-foot building can be permitted in an historic district where the prevailing height is less than 300 feet, what keeps that from happening in any other historic district in Chicago?” says David Bahlman, president of the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois. Adds Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, “We do not condone construction of new buildings on top of historically significant ones…It opens the door to unbridled development in historic districts.”

However, 42nd Ward Alderman Burton Natarus argues Wabash Avenue already is hampered by the Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated tracks above the street, which casts shadows on Jeweler’s Row. “What everybody is forgetting is, this is Wabash Avenue,” Natarus says. “Wabash is a very, very different street because of the El. The El is an absolute shade on the street. This will make Wabash Avenue something to be proud of.”

US Equities Realty president and chief operating officer Nancy A. Pacher, also a member of the plan commission, agrees. Her firm’s office is at 20 N. Michigan Ave., a block from Mesa Development’s latest proposal as well as a block south of its Heritage at Millennium Park condominium tower. “It’s a wonderful part of the Loop, until you get to Wabash,” Pacher says. “It looks dirty, tacky and seedy.”

Hanson is being allowed to build 300,000 sf more than current zoning permits as a result of building setbacks, an environmental “green roof,” 20% of units being accessible to the handicapped and a $1.3-million donation to the city’s affordable housing fund.

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