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City Council moves to transform ‘Motor Row’ into ‘Music Row’

Updated: November 5, 2011 1:08PM

A South Loop street once lined with automobile showrooms could someday become a thriving entertainment district that celebrates Chicago’s musical roots in blues and jazz, thanks to a zoning designation advanced Thursday.

After nearly two decades of discussion, the City Council’s Zoning Committee agreed to transform the three-block stretch of South Michigan Avenue between Cermak and the Stevenson Expressway from “Motor Row” into “Music Row.” The full City Council is expected to sign off next week.

“Chicago is the home of jazz and blues and we’ve forgotten about that. We need to bring back that culture,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd). “I’m surprised when people approach me all the time from out of town saying, ‘How come there’s no designation for what we’ve done here in the city of Chicago. You are the home of it.’ We’re going to restore that age of glory in terms of what music is all about.”

At least initially, the designation means that no new residential projects could be built within the boundaries of the new entertainment district, while two rental projects with a combined 250 units are allowed to move forward.

But Fioretti hopes the designation triggers the start of a decade-long process that will draw nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and microbreweries to the area. Public improvements — including wider sidewalks and slower traffic to accommodate pedestrians — could also be bankrolled by three surrounding tax-increment financing districts, he said.

“We need this district to bridge the South Loop, Bronzeville, McCormick Place and Chinatown. It is the missing piece,” Fioretti said. “Rather than having a blank spot on the map amidst a tremendous number of residents, new hotels and Chinatown, why not have a destination that makes the best use of the vintage buildings we’ve preserved for precisely this use and these services.”

Music Row already has a running start. It’s home to the storied Chess Records at 2120 S. Michigan.

That’s the recording studio for some of the most legendary names in Chicago blues, including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. The studio also was a recording home for Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the Rolling Stones.

Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dave Hoekstra has described Chess studios as the “shrinking violet in the garden of American musical landmarks.”

It’s currently home to a blues museum run by the non-profit Blues Heaven Foundation. But tourists, conventioneers at nearby McCormick Place and everyday Chicagoans largely ignore the musical landmark.

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