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Apparel Center puts away clothes

Owner Ruth Anne Brown (left) her RBC Inc. showroom with Showroom Manager Walker Rediehs for story  about apparel businesses

Owner Ruth Anne Brown (left) in her RBC Inc. showroom with Showroom Manager Walker Rediehs for story about apparel businesses having to leave 350 N. Orleans st. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times.

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Updated: December 10, 2012 1:04PM

The former Apparel Center is now going without a stitch.

You know the building and maybe still call it that. It’s the one along the river just west of the Merchandise Mart, with the Chicago Sun-Times name on it and a Holiday Inn on top of it. It opened in 1977 as a home for apparel dealers, an offshoot of the Merchandise Mart’s trade show business.

The old name was dropped some years ago and now the building, at 350 N. Orleans, is losing its last connection with the industry for which it was built. The landlord, Shorenstein Properties LLC, wants the remaining tenants with apparel showrooms to leave the building by May 31.

It will complete the building’s transition to a general office location. A Shorenstein spokesman said about 60 small tenants have been asked to move. Their space, on the 6th and 13th floors, amounts to 132,000 square feet that Shorenstein will renovate. The company hopes to offer it for lease this fall.

Many apparel clients are moving next door to the mart. Others are scrambling to find a new home.

“It breaks my heart to have to leave,” said Ruth Anne Brown, who has two Apparel Center showrooms and is relocating to the mart, which she said has been cooperative. Her problem is that the fashion industry is losing an important symbol in Chicago.

“I’d like to talk with [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel to see if we can’t do something about that,” she said. Her hope is that showroom operators can band together to brand a location as a “fashion hub,” a wholesale center for apparel.

San Francisco-based Shorenstein bought the old Apparel Center for $228 million in January. In a statement, the company said it is completing a transition started by former owner Vornado Realty Trust and is helping the apparel tenants find nearby space. “We appreciate that even though most of those tenants knew this day was near and some use their space only for storage, a move can still be disruptive,” the company said.

The Sun-Times helped reposition the building by moving there in 2004. Other office tenants include Fiserv Inc. and Comcast SportsNet. The influx led to a new architectural detail — windows — being installed on what used to be windowless floors for showrooms and photo sessions.

Marilyn Lucas, owner of the Trinkets & Trappings showroom for children’s apparel and accessories, also is headed to the mart, which gave the apparel industry here a lift decades ago. “Going back to the mother ship is not a bad thing,” she said.

Mark Falanga, president of Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., said selling apparel has moved from a fixed showroom business to one in which wholesalers go to clients, often through trade shows. He said the mart will put the apparel clients on its 13th floor with giftware sellers on the theory that it’s a good mix.

The giftware people are scattered on two floors and will benefit from consolidation, Falanga said.

His company, which runs the mart for Vornado, also is reorganizing showrooms for high-end and casual furniture. The high-end group, scattered over five floors, will be concentrated on two, while the casual side, spread over three floors, will be moved onto one and a half.

Architects, designers and buyers who visit the showrooms will “find a greatly enhanced environment conducive to their needs and respectful of their time,” Falanga said.

Keep in mind that a floor at the mart is a world unto itself, measuring 200,000 square feet.

The movements within the building, and conversation by people who have space there have given rise to rumors that the mart is trying to lease or even sell a vast floor or two to a single user. Google Inc. has been mentioned, but the company, which is hunting for space downtown, has had its name connected to many potential sites.

Falanga said the company is not selling floors or marketing full-floor space. Data from CoStar Group Inc. show the mart with vacancy at a low 3 percent. In such a large building, however, that still amounts to about 220,000 available square feet.

Vornado Chairman Steven Roth said in a note to shareholders last week that he’s not selling the mart, although he wants to unload “noncore” properties around the country to bolster a lagging stock price.

There’s another issue hanging over the mart and the ex-Apparel Center. It’s the Kennedy family’s pursuit of a development for the empty Wolf Point site along the river, next to the 350 N. Orleans building.

Plans for a three-tower design are still being drafted. Sources said the Kennedys, former owners of the mart complex, want to start with an apartment tower.

If they can manage that, it would obscure views of 350 N. Orleans, which in its windowless days looked like boxes stashed along the river. It worked for the apparel folks, though.

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