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Big plans for Motor Row live inside Cheap Trick’s heads

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Updated: August 9, 2012 6:18AM

The Cheap Trick Chicago restaurant, music venue and museum will be rockin’ by next summer if all goes according to plan.

The $13 million venue from developer Landmark America would be part of a former Buick dealership at 2245 S. Michigan and a key component of the Motor Row Entertainment District.

The first tier of the Motor Row project also includes a boutique Cadillac Hotel in a former Cadillac showroom, 2300 S. Indiana. The former Rambler dealership at 132 E. 23rd St. would house a jazz club and a coffeehouse.

Pam Gleichman, CEO of Landmark America, said the plan calls for ground to be broken in late fall for a 350-seat Cheap Trick music venue in an empty lot directly north of the Buick building, the current offices of Landmark America. She said the Cadillac and Rambler sites are on the same timetable.

“It’s moving slow, but it is the Cheap Trick way of doing things,” Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen said Thursday before the band opened for Aerosmith at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan. “In Rockford [where he lives], after a show my friends are inclined to go sit at the Holiday Inn bar. So I’ve had Guns ’N Roses, Aerosmith, Hall and Oates, Kiss over to my house: ‘Let’s go to Rick’s.’ This will be a place where they can perform but they don’t have to perform.

“But it’s not like I’ll be like [former boxer turned casino greeter] Leon Spinks where I’ll be standing at the door.”

Cheap Trick offices would be headquartered in the complex, and Nielsen’s ample guitar collection would be on site as well as Bun E. Carlos’s drum collection. “It’s a logical destination being so close to [convention hub] McCormick Place,” Nielsen said.

The neighborhood’s roots are in the late 1880s. Wealthy barons Marshall Field, George Pullman and Philip Armour built mansions on Prairie Avenue. The area was known as “the sunny street of the sifted few.”

There were no cheap tricks in this posse.

Fancy car dealerships came to the area in the 1930s because of the residents, and where there is money there are speakeasys and music venues.

The music venues led to 1960s recording studios such as the historic Chess Records site, 2120 S. Michigan, and the now-empty Vee-Jay and Brunswick Records site, 1449 S. Michigan, when the area became known as “Record Row.”

“Most people are interested in the music history with the 40 different record labels that were here,” Gleichman said.

During the late 1960s, Nielsen did session work at Chess. “I was the only guy that owned a Mellotron [tape replay keyboard, recently popularized by the Flaming Lips] in the United States except for Stevie Wonder. I went to England in 1968 and found a used Mellotron like the Beatles had [featured on ‘Strawberrry Fields Forever’]. I had it shipped over by boat. Last year I went over and met Marie Dixon [president of the Blues Heaven Foundation on the Chess site and widow of Chess songwriter-studio legend Willie Dixon] and we chatted about this. And now here’s this place on Motor Row. Except for not being able to afford to buy a condo or a house down there, that’s my area.

“I even have my tickets from 1963, ’64 from the Rolling Stones at the Arie Crown Theater before it burned down [in the 1967 McCormick Place fire].”

A second phase of the Motor Row project would consist of additional redeveloped, historic properties housing entertainment and dining evoking the 1930s and shaped for today’s clientele.

“We are going to make this happen as soon as possible and look forward to spending a lot of time in the heart of the city,” Cheap Trick bassist-vocalist Tom Petersson said in an e-mail.

Chicago music fans have traveled this road before.

Big things were planned for the Harold Washington Cultural Center at 47th and King Drive as the anchor of a “Chicago Blues District.” Ground broke for that project in 1994 as the Lou Rawls Cultural Center before it finally opened in 2004 with a Roy Ayres concert. The plans never realized full potential.

The critical moment for the Motor Row project came last September.

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 Road and the Stevenson Expy. from “Motor Row” into “Record Row.” New zoning gave businesses incentive to rehab the older buildings, according to neighborhood Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd). The zoning could allow for 4 a.m. Public Place of Amusement licenses and outdoor seating licenses, but that is not a done deal. “I would have to see the overall merits of a 4 a.m. license,” Fioretti said.

What Landmark America now calls the Motor Row Entertainment District Chicago will include funding, Gleichman said, from new markets tax credits, historic preservation tax credits, local investors, endorsement fees and a small amount of loans such as the EB-5 program, where developers have found a source of cheap financing: Immigrants and their families can get green cards for themselves and their families if their $500,000 investment creates 10 jobs.

A Landmark America spokesperson said 500 permanent jobs will be created in the first phase of the Motor Row project.

The Rambler Building would cost $17 million, and the Cadillac Hotel $30 million. Landmark America is working with Marcus Corp., the Milwaukee company behind that city’s Pfister Hotel, to develop the 150-room hotel that will be anchored by a ground-floor steakhouse.

The Cheap Trick restaurant would be operated by Grant DePorter of the Harry Caray Restaurant group.

“Our involvement goes back to 2010,” DePorter said. “The band came in on a Tuesday and wanted to meet with Mayor Daley at 2 o’clock. They thought you could just meet with the mayor without a lot of notice. I called his deputy chief of staff, who checked with the mayor, who said he was a huge Cheap Trick fan. He cleared his schedule right away.”

DePorter and Cheap Trick met with Mayor Daley in his office.

Talk about wanting to want you.

“We were waiting at City Hall to see him,” Nielsen said, “and about eight suits walk out. And here we are. All of a sudden the mood lifted. We got his blessing.”

Nielsen, a co-owner of the popular Piece Brewery and Pizzeria in Wicker Park, said, “We’ll see what we can snag from there. We’re Midwest people. I was hoping to have a schnitzel bar. We used to play at the Brat Stop in Kenosha, so there’s bratwurst. We want to have real food and not a place where it costs $85 to have a hamburger.”

Rahm Emanuel and Michelle Obama have dined at Piece, he said. “Robin [Zander, Cheap Trick’s lead singer] would be eating at Gibson’s and the mayor would come over to him,” Nielsen said. “Mayor Daley is sure more of a fan than [former Gov. Rod] Blagojevich was.”

DePorter said, “Mayor Daley really believed in that project. He asked the band what needs they had. Rick is always talking about branding.

“I went to the Cheap Trick concert at the United Center and he showed me his back molars are checkerboards” — a Nielsen trademark.

Gleichman is a Rockford native who has known Cheap Trick since she was a teenager. Her father, Don, owned a small Rockford printing company. Her cousin was with Nielsen in the Grim Reapers, the precursor to Cheap Trick.

Nielsen explained, “I was planning another project in Rockford before the economy [collapsed]. But the Rockford thing was going to based around me, because I was in town. Robin moved away. Bun E. [Carlos] was interested in whatever he was doing. I’ve known Pam for more than 40 years. She went on to big things in politics and manages like 5,000 projects. But she’s always kept me in the back of her mind and I’ve thought about her. All of a sudden the twain shall meet. Not Shania Twain.”

Landmark America has completed more than 80 developments in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York and Mississippi. Known for rehabilitating historic buildings, Landmark America worked on the 1999 conversion of Lakeside Center, the former R.R. Donnelley printing center in Chicago.

DePorter sees untapped tourism potential for Motor Row, especially with its proximity to McCormick Place.

“They are putting a [Green Line Cermak] L stop there, which is huge,” he said. “The McCormick Place [union] reforms are working and bringing a lot of new conventions back to Chicago. Different businesses will be looking to relocate there because whenever there is a convention, you will have built-in business. The key is having a critical mass. Opening by next summer is doable.”

Gleichman said Landmark America is pricing contractors for the Motor Row project and had a preliminary meeting with the city’s landmarks department about the 2245 S. Michigan plan..

Lead Cheap Trick Chicago designer Ryan Nestor is of Barker/Nestor Architecture & Design in Skokie. The firm’s projects have included the Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field, Harry Caray’s Tavern at Navy Pier and Second City’s renovated 300-seat Up theater (formerly the “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” space) at Piper’s Alley.

Plans call for the empty lot next to the Buick building to be excavated and the stage set on grade, with seats sloped toward the ground. “We’ve talked a concept where tonight we would bring in Pittsburgh [music],” Nielsen said. “Tomorrow Cleveland. And all the people we know who would come by on their night off: Todd Rundgren, Jack White, Dave Grohl. It would be a place to hang.”

A satellite radio studio would operate on the third floor of the Buick building, and on the third floor, each Cheap Trick member would have a “Tokyo hotel room,” a private dressing room with a fold-down bunk and small work space, according to Nestor.

McCormick Place is the key engine to the success of Motor Row. It is less than a block away from Cheap Trick Chicago. Gleichman said, “Cheap Trick Chicago also has the option of daytime use from McCormick Place people. People want to book places that are unique and interesting. It will be designed in a way that is a lot of fun.”

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