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The Proposed Expansion and Cosmetic Revitalization of the 115 Year Old
 Congress Plaza Hotel Rejected by the Chicago Plan Commission

By William Obrian, Columbia Chronicle, ChicagoMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 4, 2008 - The proposed expansion of the Congress Plaza Hotel, 520 S. Michigan Ave., fell one vote short of approval Jan. 17, upsetting the anticipated economic and cosmetic revitalization the hotel's New York-based ownership group had desired for the 115-year-old structure.

The hotel proposed the expansion in hopes of adding four floors to the hotel's southwest portion of the existing building along Harrison Street and one floor on the side of the building near Congress Parkway.

The proposed expansion would accommodate a health club, swimming pool, restaurant and 56 additional hotel rooms to its existing 928.

The hotel sought approval from the Chicago Plan Commission, an advisory body made up of aldermen, architects, real estate developers and bankers, with expertise in building and zoning issues. The commission's approval is a mandatory prerequisite for building projects throughout the city, said Peter Scales, communication director of the department of Planning and Development.

The Chicago Plan Commission was the deciding factor on the Congress Hotel's expansion proposal. The department of Planning and Development reviewed the proposal before the commission and after its review and approval. The expansion proposal then went to the Chicago Plan Commission for a vote.

The decision resulted in four out of nine commission members leaning in favor of the proposal, while one member voted against. Four other members abstained from casting a ballot altogether, for unknown reasons, leaving the proposal one vote short of the required majority, Scales said.

"Without the acquiescence of the Plan Commission, the expansion of the Congress Hotel cannot proceed," Scales said. "They have the final word."

Although the commission's disapproval left the Congress Hotel's proposal short by one vote, the hotel plans to present an amended--yet similar--expansion proposal, said Peter Andjelkovich, attorney for the Congress Hotel.

"We are now weighing our options and will present an appeal motion on this issue, amending the proposal, that will hopefully garner the approval of the Plan Commission," Andjelkovich said.

The vote took place despite fierce opposition by UNITE HERE Local 1; the union representing the service workers in the hotel, such as housekeeping, laundry, kitchen, food servers, banquets, bell/door staff and telephone operators.

UNITE HERE Local 1 and the Congress Hotel have been embroiled in a four and one-half year labor dispute over pay cuts, wage freezes, lacking health care and benefits package, said Annemarie Strassel, Local 1 spokeswoman.

Alderman Robert Fioretti, who is not on the commission but whose 2nd Ward includes the hotel, also opposed the proposal because of the many complaints he said he has received about the cleanliness and service at the hotel.

"The complaints, which have been cleared up recently, is what the alderman has found objectionable," said Chris Karabis, Fioretti's chief of staff. "We're just not sure about their business practices, and don't feel confident enough to advocate the expansion."

Danielle Dombrow, Fioretti's staff assistant, said in addition to the alderman's opposition, there were many individuals that testified before the commission voicing their disapproval of the expansion. This included local residents, business owners and representatives from the union.

Andjelkovich said the hotel has made many improvements since 2003, and the expansion would improve not only the hotel, but would also be good for the community and the neighborhood in general.

"The expansion would generate revenue, making [the hotel] more competitive with other hotels downtown and enhance the aesthetic of the building," Andjelkovich said. "The better the hotel looks, the better the community looks."

Member of the Chicago Plan Commission, Nancy Pacer, said she could not comment on the Congress Hotel--or the expansion proposal--because she was a voting member on the commission.

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To see more of the Columbia Chronicle, which covers the Columbia College community, go to http://www.ccchronicle.com/.

Copyright (c) 2008, Columbia Chronicle, Chicago

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