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‘Loop University’ may get $32M makeover for college housing

Exteriors 20 E. JacksSt. (left) 28 E. JacksSt. for story development this address which had been designed by Chicago architect

Exteriors of 20 E. Jackson St. (left) and 28 E. Jackson St. for story on development of this address, which had been designed by Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall, who also designed the Drake and Blackstone Hotels and the South Shore Cultural Center. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 21, 2012 8:07AM

Loop University — the nickname for a section of downtown Chicago where 65,000 college students take classes and 20,000 of them live — may be getting a $32 million addition tailor-made for graduate students.

Developers want to convert a pair of century-old, but underutilized office buildings — and a former stable in the alley in between — into 199 fully-furnished, one- and two-bedroom apartments specifically marketed to grad students.

The two office buildings — at 20 and 28 E. Jackson — were designed by Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall, who also designed the Drake and Blackstone hotels and the South Shore Cultural Center.

DJ Acquisitions LLC wants to landmark both buildings, now 50 percent occupied.

“If we can get that, there are tax incentives. It also eliminates the requirement for parking and special loading docks,” said partner Steve Tinsley.

The stable between the two buildings survived the Chicago fire. It could be converted into a student lounge or meeting room. The $32 million “gut rehab,” also calls for the three buildings to be connected by some sort of indoor breezeway.

With 23 colleges, universities and professional education schools, the Loop has become a campus unto itself with more than 65,000 students attending classes. Roughly 11,000 of them are grad students, creating a market developers hope to fill at Wabash and Jackson in the fall of 2013.

The 199 furnished one- and two-bedroom apartments would have full kitchens and rent for $1,150 to $1,350 a month.

“There’s a hole in the market for grad student housing with one and two bedrooms, and the location is exceptional. It’s across the street from DePaul law school and in walking distance from John Marshall and Loyola law schools and other grad schools,” Tinsley said.

A market study conducted for DJ Acquisitions shows there is “enormous demand” for one- and two-bedroom apartments — so much so that the project should “open full,” Tinsley said.

“A student can come from out of state with two suitcases and have a fully-furnished apartment with everything included. You don’t have to look for a house and furnish it. You’re there to concentrate on your studies,” he said.

“It’s a different concept than an apartment building. You’re with other students. There’s give-and-take with student lounges and high-speed Internet connections. We don’t feel there’s anything like this.”

Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd), whose ward includes the project, said he’s all for anything that will “continue building up the student population” in the downtown area.

“If they can make a go of it, we should help them out in any way we can. Anything that brings 24/7 life to our downtown is something we should encourage. Landmarking may be a way to save some dollars for them, [but] whether they qualify has yet to be proven,” he said.

But, Fioretti noted that a string of developers have approached him with student housing plans, only to have financing fall through. DJ Acquisitions insists it has already lined up financing and that they can make a go of it, even without the tax breaks tied to landmarked buildings.

“Have they partnered with a university to ensure student population? The question is, do we have a significant enough graduate student population” to fill the 199 units, Fioretti said.

One day after announcing his political retirement, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced an ordinance that would establish minimum security requirements for buildings with more than 50 units of student housing.

It called for those buildings to install security lighting, surveillance cameras at every door, lobby stairwell and elevator and have around-the-clock security desks that distribute visitor badges and escort visitor to upstairs rooms.

Locks that bar entry from the outside were required on all exterior doors. Buildings with 100 or more units were required to hire “licensed and insured” security personnel to patrol the premises 24-hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.

Tinsley said the developers are well aware of those requirements and plan to meet them.

“Security is very important. A lot of these people are coming in from out of town. We want to make sure they feel extremely secure in this building. There’s gonna be one entrance and high security,” he said.

DePaul treasurer Jeff Bethke noted that the university’s presence in the South Loop dates back to the 1950’s and its investment in the area has helped transform a once “economically-depressed” area into “one of the nation’s leading urban education centers.”

“Over the decades, DePaul has converted five former office and retail buildings into thriving educational space. There have been a number of student housing projects around downtown in recent years and we are happy to see this trend continue,” Bethke said.

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