Stranded at the Station | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Stranded at the Station 

The rise and fall of grand plans for a South Loop gallery district.

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Four years ago, in the spring of 1999, veteran arts patron Lewis Manilow announced that he and developer Allison Davis of the Davis Group had made the winning $5.85 million bid on adjacent city-owned properties in the South Loop. The Davis Group, the principal bidder, was to build a 39-story condominium tower where the razed Avenue Motel had stood, on the northwest corner of Roosevelt and Michigan. Manilow was to convert the long-shuttered Continental Trailways Bus Terminal, at Roosevelt and Wabash, into a contemporary visual arts center. The two-story, 20,000-square-foot terminal, built in the 1920s, was supposed to hold 10 to 15 established and start-up art galleries as well as nonprofit offices, temporary exhibition areas, and space for local collectors, including Manilow and his wife Susan, to show their works.

Manilow was optimistic. In an October 1999 Reader cover story, I quoted him saying he hoped his arts center would spur arts-related development in the Michigan-Roosevelt area, then just starting to sprout luxury condos and lofts. He saw the center as a catalyst for a new gallery district that might eventually rival River North, Wicker Park, and West Loop Gate. "I do believe one thing--the rising tide lifts all ships," he told me. "A more exciting scene will be wonderful for everybody."

Given Manilow's connections in Chicago's art and political worlds, few doubted he would get the job done--after all, the center had the support of Mayor Daley, a friend. Manilow was a founder and former president of the Museum of Contemporary Art and is a trustee at the Art Institute. He was a booster of the new Goodman Theatre and of the Chicago Theater District. A lawyer, he's also a high-powered Democratic Party fund-raiser and in 2000 received a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton, also a friend. Not everything Manilow touched turned to gold. He was an angel to the Randolph Street Gallery in the 1980s, but the renowned alternative art space later struggled and finally closed several years ago. And the large donation he made to the New Art Examiner in 2001 didn't prevent the magazine from folding last spring.

In the summer of 1999 Manilow worked with Vedanta Gallery director Kavi Gupta, a West Loop pioneer, to put together a group of nonprofits and art dealers who might be interested in becoming tenants in the renovated terminal, including Carl Hammer, Rhona Hoffman, Thomas McCormick, and Dan Hug and Michael Hall of the Chicago Project Room. Manilow says 11 spaces were spoken for, though no leases were signed. That August the city's Community Development Commission approved the plans for a $59 million condominium tower, called Gallery Park Place, and the terminal rehab.

Remodeling on the terminal was to begin early in 2000 and perhaps be completed by the fall. Manilow had John Vinci of Vinci/Hamp Architects draw up plans for the place, whose cavernous waiting room was to be carved up to accommodate several storefront spaces, ranging from 1,500 to 4,000 square feet. But the package deal still needed the approval of other city agencies, and work on the terminal couldn't start until the condo tower was a sure thing.

Within a year Manilow's plans for the terminal started falling apart. McCormick and Gupta invested in a building at 835 W. Washington and set up shop there with two other galleries, so they were no longer interested in a South Loop space. Hammer moved to 740 N. Wells in January 2000, and Hoffman moved to 118 N. Peoria; both decided to stay put. In the fall of 2000 Hug and Hall moved their gallery to Los Angeles (it later closed). Other potential tenants--neither Manilow nor Gupta will name them--lost interest too. Manilow showed the terminal to Michigan Avenue dealer Richard Gray, who was looking for a secondary space, but he didn't sign on.

Part of the problem was that Gallery Park Place didn't get off the ground as quickly as Manilow had assumed it would. "It's a complicated financial transaction," he told the Reader in April 2001. At that point the Davis Group still didn't own the property. "The economics were very difficult," says Davis.

In February 2002 the Chicago Plan Commission finally approved the project, a couple months later the City Council OK'd it, and last August the planning department signed off on it. Gallery Park Place, which now had 46 floors, would cost $140 million; the bus terminal renovation would cost up to $30 million. (According to Vinci, the city paid to restore the terra-cotta facade, which was completed early last year.)

"As soon as they close on the property, my building is free to be developed," says Manilow. "Then we'll move ahead." Davis says construction of the condo tower, which is expected to take nearly two years, can't begin until at least 40 percent of the 225 condo units are sold, for prices averaging between $500,000 and $600,000. He says he "can't predict" how long that might take, given the sluggish economy, though he says sales trailers should arrive on the site soon.

Vinci says he hasn't talked to Manilow lately and doesn't know if he's still part of the bus terminal renovation, though he notes he'd rather build from scratch these days than do rehabs. Manilow, he says, "had good intentions."

Manilow has long since given up on the idea of having a lot of separate galleries in the renovated terminal. "The original idea is dead," he says. "We hope to find a different use culturally. I made a commitment to do something with the property, so I'll do something good with it." He doesn't blame the galleries that dropped out, noting that the solidifying West Loop art scene has been "wonderful for Chicago." He does say he's leaning toward finding a large institutional tenant and suggests that some downtown university-related art spaces could be interested.

"If Lew's serious," says Hoffman, "there's a whole bunch of young galleries springing up in every neighborhood that might want to move there" if they can get a good deal. Gupta, who says he hasn't been in touch with Manilow for a long while, says, "I think there's a lot of cultural institutions that would be interested. If he can't find a major tenant, then he'll have to offer it to some institution at a low cost. It could be a boon to some university gallery to get that space at a below-market rate."

One institution that might be interested is the National Jazz Museum, which was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1995 and has developed education programs, exhibits, an oral history project, and events like the recent tribute to Billy Strayhorn at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Harold Washington Library. The museum was one of the four finalists bidding on the Michigan-Roosevelt lot that will become Gallery Park Place. Director Susan Motley says that she and the museum's board members have been talking to city cultural and planning officials about another centrally located facility, but nothing firm has emerged. She hasn't talked to Manilow but says the bus terminal would be a "wonderful opportunity."

"There are all kinds of things we can do," says Manilow.

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

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