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Art Deco Jewel to Shine Again as Boutique Hotel in Wicker Park

By Alisa Hauser | September 25, 2013 12:02pm | Updated on September 25, 2013 12:35pm
 Plans are underway to convert the iconic Northwest Tower at 1608 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park into a boutique hotel. 
 The developers, DRW Holdings, are in the early stages of engaging with the community on the project, which would require a zoning change at a storage facility at 1624 N. Milwaukee Ave., adjacent to the 12-story art deco tower.  The building would house a meeting space and banquet hall adjacent to the tower.
Northwest Tower and Hollander Storage Building, 1608-1624 N. Milwaukee Ave.
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WICKER PARK — After years of talk, plans are underway to convert Wicker Park's Northwest Tower, a 12-story vintage office building, into a boutique hotel, sources confirmed Wednesday.

The developers are in the "preliminary stages of engaging with the community on the project," said Paul Sajovec, a spokesman for 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack.

The plan would put a 80- to 90-room hotel and a first-floor restaurant in the iconic tower at 1608 N. Milwaukee Ave. at the northwest corner of the Milwaukee, Damen and North avenues intersection.

The complex would include a meeting space and banquet hall on the grounds of a neighboring warehouse at 1616 N. Milwaukee Ave.

 Elevator doors in the Northwest Tower, 1608 N. Milwaukee Ave, in Wicker Park.
Elevator doors in the Northwest Tower, 1608 N. Milwaukee Ave, in Wicker Park.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

Once owned by real estate developer Susan Dinko — who is the building's current property manager — the tower and warehouse were sold in 2008 to developer Krzysztof Karbowski.

After Karbowski got into financial difficulties, the tower and warehouse were sold last November for $12.5 million to a partnership between investor Don Wilson and Adventurous Journey Capital Partners (AJ Capital), according to Crain's.

AJ Capital is the prolific hotel developer that transformed a former Days Inn at 1816 N. Clark St. in Lincoln Park into the Lincoln Hotel.

A spokesman for Wilson and AJ Capital was not available for immediate comment. However, Sajovec told DNAinfo Chicago that Wilson's firm is "working with community groups in pursuit of a zoning change for the Hollander storage building."

Currently zoned for manufacturing use, the vacant storage building is "sturdy, well-built," said Sajovec, adding, "having an adaptive reuse for that is an added benefit" to the project.

"The ability to use Hollander for banquet-type space is important for meetings and conferences and social events. It helps those types of hotels put some heads to beds on weekends," Sajovec said.

The Northwest Tower was built in 1928, according to a 2007 city report.

Sajovec cited Wilson's recent track record of success in the neighborhood —  including the repurposing of the DRW-owned historic landmark Noel State Building into a Walgreens — and an upturn in the economy as factors leading to the plan being put in motion.

The tower's largest tenant is Sprint. A previous plan by Karbowksi to keep Sprint as the centerpiece ground-floor tenant of the hotel lacked "sophistication," Waguespack had told Crain's.

While Wilson's firm owns the property, Sajovec said the firm is looking to partner with a boutique hotel company to manage the property and "They're not trying to attract a Hilton or a Hyatt."

Sajovec described the early talks between the developers and neighborhood leaders as "a prelude to a more formalized neighborhood group meeting" and cautioned that the plans "are in preliminary stages."

"They are still talking to boutique operators and are still not sure if they want a more higher-end or an arts-focused concept," he said.

Sajovec said the current plan for the hotel, to be designed by architect Ted Theodore, whose firm also designed the Walgreens building at 1601 N. Milwaukee, has "a range of 80 to 90 rooms."

"It's a type of building that isn't going to get built again. They want to respect historic character of the building and understand any aesthetic changes have to be kept to a bare minimum," Sajovec said.

Though Waguespack supports the project concept, any zoning decisions would go through Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), whose new ward encompasses the tower and warehouse.

Through a spokeswoman Wednesday, Fioretti said, "I'm collaborating closely with and taking advisement from Ald. Waguespack, who has been working on this particular project."

As nascent plans for the building take shape, some tenants remaining in the tower said they had not heard about the plans from Wilson, their landlord.

On Tuesday, in a tiny second-floor office, Jim Pullos surveyed piles of papers and files surrounding his desk and joked, "I'd hate to move all this garbage."

A retired restaurateur who has been renting an office in the tower for six years, Pullos said the hotel "could be a positive."

Lawyer Michael A. Perez, who's been in the building since 1986, has a lease expiring in March, said paralegal Barbie Rivera.

Rivera has worked in the tower for 17 years and said she "loves the old look, the lobby, the marble in the entrance."

"It's gorgeous," she said.

"People come here and say it's like [being in] an old detective's office. This building is classic, they don't make 'em like this anymore,"  Rivera said.