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Like a Rock 

Wabash Avenue jewelers are standing firm as they fight to remain in their traditional setting.

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By Ben Joravsky

As soon as the first jeweler received his notice of lease termination, others figured it was only a matter of days before they all got the boot. But more than a month has passed and the jewelers still hold fast in the 18-story building at 5 N. Wabash, having successfully navigated some pretty choppy waters. "We're doing everything we can," says Michel Souri, a jeweler in the building. "We're fighting for our industry."

Souri's still surprised anyone would even have thought of evicting the jewelers, who have been there so long it seems like forever. The longest-standing tenant, Leo Bachrach, opened his shop in 1944, only eight years after his mother urged him to leave Germany. "My grandmother was a smart woman. She read Mein Kampf and took it seriously," says Mark Bachrach, who works with his father. "My life is a blessing thanks to her foresight."

Souri moved to the building in 1974, shortly after he migrated from Syria. "Where else would I go?" he says. "Along with the building across the street on South Wabash, this is jewelers row." According to Souri, roughly half of the 130 or so shops in his building are jewelry related. "In Belgium, in Israel, in Damascus, you ask, 'Where are the jewelers in Chicago?' And they'll say 5 N. Wabash," says Souri.

For many years the city valued the presence of the jewelers. The late 80s were a hard time for businesses in the Loop, as fickle shoppers fled for suburban malls. Vacancy rates rose and credit was tight; developers found it hard to finish their projects even when the city backed them with subsidies. "But we were always here," says Souri. "We were loyal. We never left."

But in the last few years the downtown real estate market has boomed. Rents are rising, vacancies falling, major institutions expanding. Apparently the jewelers seem less desirable.

After changing hands at least four times in the last ten years, their building at 5 N. Wabash has been looking a little shabby. "The worst part has been the elevators," says Mark Bachrach. "There are four. But over the last few months only three, and sometimes only two, were operating."

Last January the building was sold to a company called Special Assets. The firm installed an on-site manager, repainted the second floor and basement, tuck-pointed the exterior, and met with the jewelers over breakfast to assure them that, as Souri puts it, "everyone would be working together for a long time."

But in September Special Assets sold the building to a buyer whose identity still hasn't been revealed. This time there were no friendly breakfasts, pledges of cooperation, or on-site managers. Instead, the tenants got a terse letter (addressed "Dear Tenant") notifying them that "effective immediately, Mid-America Asset Management Company will be the Managing Agent for 5 N. Wabash Avenue, located in Chicago, Illinois." The letter was signed by C. Michelle Panovich, "principal" of the Oak Brook-based concern.

From the outset Bachrach was concerned, if only because his lease expires next May. "We want to stay, but we need some reassurances," he says now. "I called Ms. Panovich, but all she said was we'll give you more information after January 1. When I pressed her, saying I needed information now, she said, 'Mark, do what's best for you.'"

In frustration, he wrote Panovich a letter, dated October 13, expressing his concerns in more detail. "None of the tenants here like the fact that NOBODY knows who owns this building," he began. "They have not met any of the shop owners, nor has there been a building manager on site for the last two weeks....I mentioned that I would like to negotiate a lease now, as mine runs out in May. You mentioned that I will have to wait until the first of the year to talk about this. Do the new owners have any idea how unfair this is? I don't know if I will have to move because no one will tell me anything. Do I look for a new space now, or wait? If I find something I like elsewhere, I won't know now how long it may be held for me. This is keeping all of us here completely in the dark."

On October 14, Panovich responded by letter. "I am sure you can understand that it will take some time for us to analyze exactly the direction we will be headed with this building," she wrote. "It is very fair for me to tell you that we have not set a direction at this point in time, and that this is not unusual.... Mark, if you feel that you need to check the market and find alternative space, please feel free to do so."

Other jewelers in the building were getting similar responses. They were baffled.

"Nothing made sense," says Bachrach. "'Do what's best for you'? What does that mean? Do they want us to leave? And why would they need more time to figure out their direction? Why would they spend all that money to buy a building in the Loop if they didn't know what they were going to do with it?"

The tenants figured their new landlord already had plans and that these plans didn't include them. "We heard rumors that they were going to bring in the Art Institute," says Souri. "We heard they wanted to kick us out and use the building for dorms."

In early November one jeweler, David Bull, got a more definitive response in the form of a registered letter from Mid-America informing him that his lease would be terminated as of April 30. At long last the jewelers thought they knew why Mid-America had insisted they wait until January for more information.

"There's an article in most leases--it's called article 22--that gives the landlord the right to terminate the lease on April 30 so long as he gives you three months' notice," says Souri. In other words, in January the landlord can announce he is terminating the lease, no matter how many years a tenant has left on it. "But he [Bull] had different language in his lease that required the landlord to give him six months' notice. When he got his letter, we figured we'd get ours in January. We said, 'Now we know what they wanna do. They wanna kick us out!'"

Determined to stay, Souri went into action. "I organized a meeting of all the jewelers," he says. "There were some who said we had no leverage and that they will crush us. I said, 'What kind of talk is that? We have leverage if we act as a unit.'"

He called Alderman Burton Natarus and the press. David Heinzmann, a Tribune reporter, responded with a sympathetic story. TV and radio reporters followed up with their own coverage. Under pressure to protect the jewelers from sudden evictions, Natarus agreed to hold a public meeting on the matter.

Now Souri was determined to win support from the top. On November 9, the day before Natarus's meeting, he managed to wangle his way into a reception for Mayor Daley. "There were 300 people there and they all wanted to see the mayor, so I knew I didn't have a lot of time with him," Souri recalls. "I walked up to him and said, 'Mr. Mayor, you know of our meeting with Mr. Natarus?' He looked me in the eye and said, 'I know everything.' That look, I can still see it. It was like he was telling me, 'Over my dead body.'"

The next day Natarus held his meeting at the Palmer House. "Hundreds of jewelers attended," says Souri. "The whole industry was there. I said to the alderman, 'Did you ever see so many people united?' There were Jewish people, Armenians, Indians. I am Arab, my lawyer is black. It was a beautiful sight."

The new owner didn't show up, though he (or she or they) sent a lawyer, William Singer, who refused to reveal the owner's identity or plans for the building.

Alicia Mazur, a city planner, said she had talked with representatives of the owner, who told her they were hoping to rent some space to the Art Institute--which didn't mean the jewelers would have to move. Maybe the city could find some sort of subsidy to make it worth the owner's while to let the jewelers stay, Mazur said.

A few days later Daley publicly chimed in, telling reporters that "we are going to be keeping them [the jewelers] there. No one is going to buy that building for other purposes. We stand with every one of those tenants." Daley said he was one of many who had bought a wedding ring from a Wabash Avenue jeweler.

Neither Panovich nor her assistant has commented. But Natarus figures some deal will be arranged. "You heard what the mayor said, 'It's a part of our history,'" says Natarus. "Trust me, we'll try to do the best with the jewelers."

As for the jewelers, they have been examining all such statements as they would precious stones, looking for flaws and inconsistencies. "Some people are skeptical but not me," says Souri. "The mayor says we should stay, so we should stay. Who wants to say no to the mayor?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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