CHICAGO (CBS) — It looked like a piece of Chicago’s past was destined for the wrecking ball, but a new historic landmark declaration is likely to save a number of Near North Side row houses built in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire. What might not have been saved is millions of dollars invested in a plan to replace those buildings with a skyscraper.
The three former row houses, which have been transformed into a mix of restaurants and businesses, sit on the corner of Superior and Wabash. Their distinctive stone fronts and gabled roofs have been spared from the wrecking ball.
They’re among 15 former row houses and mansions on the Near North Side that the city has preliminarily approved as a landmark district, a mix of mansions and flats dating back to the late 1800s.
“This is something we have been asking for for a long time,” said Mark Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “They’re really beautifully scaled buildings, and there’s only a handful of these buildings left.”
Miller said, without landmark status, the city is at risk of losing the buildings for good.
“I think the fabric of the neighborhood is really under siege,” he said.
With high rises sprouting on most corners, these buildings’ facades are the last vestiges of McCormickville, a neighborhood where the city’s elite came to settle just after the Great Chicago Fire.
“We’re really excited about this district,” Miller said.
Concerns mounted four years ago, when the Superior Street row houses were purchased by New York-based Symmetry Development, with plans to build a 42-story skyscraper on the site.
But this isn’t only a tale of preservation. Now the investors who ponied up nearly $50 million for the building that was supposed to replace the row houses want to know where is the cash?
“The problem is simply we can’t find where the money went to,” said attorney Doug Litowitz, who represents 90 Chinese investors suing Symmetry Development in federal court. Each investor put $550,000 into the project.
“The investors have a right to know where their money is,” Litowitz said. “If we can’t get the money back, then we expect some type of punishment.”
The investors also were hoping to secure U.S. visas through the federal EB-5 program, which grants green cards to foreigners whose investments produce at least 10 jobs.
“As of now, no jobs created, and we are four years into it,” Litowitz said.
In 2017, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) rejected plans to build the skyscraper, but Symmetry went ahead a year later with a demolition request. Reilly introduced a zoning change to delay demolition, allowing preservationists time to get support for a landmark designation.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks approved a preliminary recommendation for the Near North Side landmark district last month. The commission has since said it was open to adding a number of additional structures to the district. Final approval of the landmark district could take six to 12 months.
Symmetry did not respond to requests for an interview. Their website boasts of projects in Chicago and Hawaii, where a Symmetry development reportedly is in foreclosure.
Attorneys for the Chinese investors are due back in court on Thursday for a hearing on their lawsuit.