Chinatown warehouse slated for redevelopment into four-star hotel with offices, retail

E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS

A long-delayed effort to restore a vacant Chinatown landmark may finally get underway next year.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday recommended approving a special property tax incentive for the former W.M. Hoyt Building at 465 W. Cermak Road, along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Developer Windfall Group plans to transform the hulking warehouse into Pacifica of Chicago, a four-star hotel with offices, a grocery, restaurants, a medical center, a spa, ground-level retail and a public riverwalk.

“The Hoyt Building has been vacant for decades,” said Windfall Group CEO Eddie Ni, but in the future, “it will serve as a gateway to both Chinatown and Pilsen.”

Windfall expects the renovation will cost between $40 million and $50 million, and the special incentive, called Class L and reserved for landmark properties, would reduce the property’s tax assessments for 12 years.

“With the Class L, it will be more affordable to bring in new tenants,” said Judy Ni, Windfall’s director of real estate.

Historic preservationists applauded Windfall’s proposal and said the former wholesale grocery warehouse, designed in the Prairie-style by Nimmons & Fellows and completed in 1909, represents a time when even industrial properties included artistic flourishes.

“We’ve had many false starts on this site over the last decade or more,” Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said. “But this can be a transformative project that not only ensures the reuse of a wonderful building, one that honors the era’s frequently forward-looking architecture, it can also show the city and many others how industrial buildings are significant and shouldn’t be demolished and replaced by bland shopping centers.”

Chicago developer R2 in 2015 proposed transforming the five-story, 300,000-square-foot structure, part of the landmark Cermak Road Bridge District, into an office development, but that and several other potential deals eventually fell through. It’s been disappointing, according to landmarks commission member Alicia Ponce, who recalled at last month’s meeting how this summer she found herself staring up at the Hoyt Building while kayaking down the river.

“I’ve loved this building for such a long time,” she said. “I’ve always wondered, when is someone going to do something?”

Aurora-based Windfall Group, along with several investors, bought the property in 2022, Judy Ni said. She envisions the empty warehouse becoming a community hub, with loading docks once serviced by trains, trucks and barges transformed into open arcades, including one along the riverfront.

The disappointments other developers had doesn’t deter Windfall Group, she added. It’s currently negotiating with a major hospitality brand to operate a hotel, and the location, near downtown and right between Chinatown, Pilsen and the burgeoning South Loop, should be enticing for tenants.

“Chicago’s Chinatown is actually one of the few Chinatowns in the U.S. that is still growing,” she said. “But we also want to be a destination for a lot of people from outside Chicago as well.”

Robert Habeeb, CEO of Maverick Hotels and Restaurants, which manages the 148-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott in Chinatown, said the neighborhood is often underestimated by investors.

“People think the neighborhood is just a lot of restaurants and shops, but there is a lot more going on there,” he said. “The hotel we manage there performs really well, well above our expectations. Chinatown is close to McCormick Place and close to the central business district, so I think we’re going to start seeing more progressive development like (Pacifica of Chicago). The market is crying out for quality product.”

Windfall wants to break ground by 2024, although its proposal still needs final approvals from the Chicago Plan Commission and City Council. The developer will also need additional approvals from the landmarks commission for its plans to renovate or replace portions of the exterior’s historic limestone and terra cotta details.

Miller told commission members the project shows how important it is to establish landmark districts such as the Cermak Road Bridge District, which was created in 2006 and includes several other warehouses across the river in East Pilsen.

“Thank you most of all for making this a landmark district, having the faith that this would one day, even if it was more than a decade later, have a transformational effect on a neighborhood,” he said. “We see the power of landmarks here.”