Byline: Lisa Bertagnoli

CHICAGO — It’s not quite Area 51, but what to do with Block 37, an empty three-acre plot in the downtown Loop area here on State Street, has been a vexing problem for the city.
It’s finally getting closer to a resolution, however. Last month, the city accepted requests for qualifications from 10 developers, one of which will be chosen as a master developer for the site. And, one of the marquee names being batted about for a possible tenant is Harrods. It would be the second unit for the London-based department store.
The lineup of developers includes local players John Buck Co. and Thomas J. Klutznick Co., and national firms such as Mills Corp., which developed the Gurnee Mills outlet mall in suburban Chicago.
A request for qualifications, rather than proposals, is part of an effort to “do something new here,” said Alicia Berg, the city’s planning commissioner.
Calling for qualifications is “less expensive and less of a hurdle to entice developers to take a look at the block,” Berg said. “So far, so good. We had a great response.”
The commission expects to select a master developer by this summer, and in a perfect world, the development would open for business in 2005 or 2006.
The city chose a master developer approach after it determined that the vast expanse of space could be broken up into smaller projects.
“In the past, we thought of the block as a block, that it had to be developed in one chunk. Now we’re not so committed to that idea,” Berg said. “A master developer will ensure that the development is cohesive, even if it’s done piece by piece.”
Block 37, which architecture wags have deemed “a hole in the heart of the Loop,” was once the home to such buildings as the McCarthy Building, where Clarence Darrow had his offices. The buildings fell victim to disrepair and lease disputes and were leveled in 1985. Since then, various plans have been proposed and discarded, most recently a condo/hotel/retail extravaganza.
The block’s emptiness hasn’t impeded progress on State Street, however. It’s currently home to a hodgepodge of retailers, from Marshall Field’s to Filene’s Basement. In 1999, Field’s, one of the street’s icons, began a substantial makeover of its eight-story building. Carson Pirie Scott & Co., whose State Street store was designed by Louis Sullivan, is renovating as well.
Sears, which closed its original State Street store in the Seventies, reopened in the spring of 1999. A spokeswoman for the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based chain said the company is pleased with the store’s performance, especially in soft goods.
“Lots of purchases are small gifts and things that people can pick up on their lunch hour and easily transport home,” she said.
The local press has reported that Nordstrom has considered opening one of its Rack units on State Street. But a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based chain said the company has never announced such plans.
The bigger news is that the city is working to persuade Harrods to open a store on the Block 37 site. By Berg’s account, that dream might well become reality.
“They’re interested in going on this block, and we think it would be a great draw, an incredible draw,” Berg said. “We’re definitely working with them.”
Last June, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley visited London and was so impressed by what he saw at Harrods that he invited its owner, Mohammed Al Fayed, for a visit to Chicago, and asked him if he’d be interested in opening a store here. At the time, a Harrods spokesman said: “We are looking at this very favorably,” and recently told WWD that nothing has really changed since then, and that the company is still looking at the situation.

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