Motor Row shifts into high gear

Special to the Tribune

Franco and Tatum Lanzi liked living in the suburbs. But they wondered whether they were missing out on all the city had to offer: the culture, theaters, museums and lakefront.

It took some long conversations with friends who lived in the city, but the Lanzis decided to move downtown from Orland Park. That left just the choice of neighborhood for them and their 7-year-old daughter. Lincoln Park? Lakeview? Bucktown?None of the above.

The couple went with "D" and chose Motor Row, a landmark district in the South Loop once famous for the car dealers and manufacturers that called it home. In June, the Lanzi family moved into the Wabash Club Townhomes, a new development at 2390 S. Wabash Ave.

They are thrilled. Motor Row isn't as established as other Chicago neighborhoods, lacking the coffee shop on every corner. But for the Lanzis, it is the chance to get into an up-and-coming Chicago neighborhood before its prices soar.

"The people we knew in the suburbs were looking at us like Martians when we told them we were moving out here," Franco Lanzi said. "It is a bit of a bet right now. A few years ago, this was not a place where anyone would want to live. It just needs a little time, though, and it's going to be someplace special."

Lanzi is far from alone. Developers and new residents are descending on this area with several new residential projects rising here. Retail is only slightly behind. There are signs that restaurateurs and shop owners are targeting this slice of the city, and nearby Roosevelt Road features Home Depot, a Dominick's and Jewel, a new Whole Foods Market and a mall at Cana Street to the west.

Developers say Motor Row, which runs from about 1400 through 2500 South Michigan Avenue and 2200 to 3500 South Indiana Avenue, with a smattering on Wabash Avenue, boasts a host of benefits: It's close to downtown Chicago, its museums and theaters; prices here have not skyrocketed; new construction abounds; and the architecture here, as throughout Chicago, is stunning.

It's little surprise, then, developers and civic leaders say, that Motor Row is poised to become Chicago's next big thing.

"A lot of development is coming here because of Motor Row's proximity to so many other neighborhoods that are all growing and pushing toward it," said Dennis Beninato, president of the Greater South Loop Association. " Bronzeville is pushing north. Pilsen is pushing east and southeast. People can't go much farther east and not much farther north. Motor Row is a natural place for them to go."

This isn't the first time Motor Row bustled. Its first boom came in the early 1900s, when dozens of car companies and manufacturers made it one of the largest automotive districts in the country.

At its height, dealers sold more than 115 makes of automobiles there. Some names are familiar: Ford, Cadillac, Fiat and Buick. Others not so much: Locomobile, Hudson and Pierce-Arrow.

The car dealers brought activity to the area, along with an eclectic mix of architectural styles, which still makes Motor Row unique. Dealers sold their vehicles from everything from simple two-story structures to massive multistory buildings with departments. Top-flight architects, including Holabird & Roche/Root, Christian Eckstorm and Alfred Alschuler, designed these structures.

After this initial boom ended in the mid-1930s, the district began a slow decline as automakers and dealers retreated to the suburbs. Starting in the late 1990s, though, the South Loop began to boom again, this time with residential development. Motor Row, as part of the greater South Loop area, is seeing the results.

Chicago's Rokas International Inc. is one of the prime players here. It has two projects under construction: Motor Row Condominiums, a 94-unit mid-rise building at 2300 S. Michigan Ave., and 2100, a 40-unit loft conversion and 180-unit condo high-rise at 2100 S. Indiana Ave. Both are scheduled to open next year.

There's also the Wabash Club, a 59-unit townhouse development by Dubin Residential In a vacant manufacturing building at 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue, the town homes are nearly sold out. Remaining units start at $559,900. CMK Development has two housing projects in Motor Row, 1620 S. and 1720 S. Michigan, both high-rises.

Beninato sees this at just the beginning.

"This is an exciting time for Motor Row," he said. "You can find a variety of new construction here. You don't have to settle for buying an 80-year-old apartment building that's being converted into condos."

Andrius Augunas, principal and founder of Rokas, said of his company's developments are about 60 percent sold.

"This is an attractive area for a lot of buyers," Augunas said. "The neighborhood is close to the lake and parks. It's close to Soldier Field and the museums. And you're not paying Lincoln Park dollars to live here. It is much cheaper to live here."

How much cheaper? Consider the base prices at Motor Row Michigan Avenue: One-bedroom condos start in the middle $200,000s, and two-bedroom units start in the mid-$300,000s.

In comparison, condos available at 2526 N. Lincoln Ave., in a rehab building in the heart of Lincoln Park, are listed at $424,900 for a two-bedroom unit. A two-bedroom unit at 350 W. Belden Ave. has an asking price of $399,900. Both are in older buildings.

Likewise, Steve Ward understands the attraction of Motor Row. He lived there from 1991 until 1995, before things took off. But Ward, an architect, saw enough to know that its resurgence was inevitable with its location, architecture and large stock of buildings.

"When I lived there, bus drivers didn't want to drop guests off in front of my home," said Ward, who heads the real estate committee of the Greater South Loop Association and now lives in East Pilsen. "But I loved it there."

Ward lived in a former Chevrolet dealership, an ideal spot for an architect and the many artists who resided there. The neighborhood itself, though, wasn't always inviting. Retail was basically nonexistent and vacant buildings common.

No so today. The change is being driven in part by the ongoing expansion of McCormick Place, which added a south building in 2000 and has just opened a west facility. The possibility of Olympics coming to Chicago, with an Olympic Village proposed for just south of McCormick Place, also is creating a buzz. The village would bring permanent housing on a truck parking lot between South Lake Shore Drive and the Illinois Central Railroad tracks.

Ward is pleased that residential development is booming, particularly in vintage buildings being rehabbed -- the Locomobile dealership at 18th and Michigan and Buick's site farther north to name two. This will preserve the character of the neighborhood, he said. .

"I am just surprised at how quickly it has happened," Ward said of the growth on Motor Row. More upgrades are coming. Chicago is adding hanging flower baskets, new streetlights, sidewalk improvements and other renovations to Motor Row as part of its Streetscape and Urban Design Program.

That, and the neighborhood's promise, are enough for Tom Campone, who bought a place in the 2100 building that he expects to occupy in 2009. He will be making a short move -- from the Prairie Avenue district.

"It seems like a good opportunity. This is a neighborhood that's rich with culture. It has great access to the city. The architectural aspects are great. I'm looking forward to moving in," said Campone, who eschewed the congestion and expense Lincoln Park and Lakeview.

"I feel like I'll be at the beginning of something once I move into Motor Row," Campone said. "There's more of a chance for infrastructure to be built that can handle the future growth there. It's not easy to get a neighborhood with such great access to the city at such affordable prices."

Lanzi and his wife are so sold they have opened a photography studio in the neighborhood. "We enjoyed living in the suburbs, but it did leave a blank as far as cultural development is concerned," Lanzi said. "Here, we have access to everything. We can get so quickly to the Adler Planetarium or the Lincoln Park Zoo or all the shows. Everything is within a cab ride or a bicycle ride. This area needs just a little attention, and then it's really going to take off."

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