LINCOLN PARK — Small business owners along Armitage Avenue and nearby residents were outraged Thursday after seeing photos of the proposed Walgreens for the first time, calling it a modernist eye-sore.
"As soon as I looked I thought you've got to be kidding me," said Brian O'Donnell who runs long-time neighborhood staple Armitage Hardware along with his father Dan. "It's exactly what they said they wouldn't do."
Residents and business owners along Armitage have been hounding Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) to get a look at the plans for the three-story Walgreens at 834 W. Armitage Ave. ever since an October community meeting, but the photos were not released until Thursday afternoon in a link at the bottom of an unrelated email from the alderman.
"I was just stunned by the front of it. It is just so contemporary. I think they could have done [something] to assimilate into the neighborhood," said Kristi Nuelle, who lives on Dayton Street directly behind the proposed structure. "It just changes the complexion of Armitage."
Smith scheduled a community meeting for Monday to discuss the Walgreens plans along with the Sheffield Neighborhood Association and members of Walgreens and their development team.
Most business owners expected to get their first glance at the structure, which features a three-story glass facade, at the meeting, but said now that the plans are out they expect a neighborhood backlash.
"They just lit a fire, let me tell you that," Brian O'Donnell said.
Less than an hour before photos of the plans were sent out Thursday, the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce sent out an email with their position "strongly supporting" the Walgreens, while recognizing the concerns of the surrounding community.
"Armitage Avenue has long been considered a barometer of the business climate in Lincoln Park," said Kim Schlif, chamber president and CEO in the statement. "An investment in this commercial district by a well-respected company like Walgreens’ is recognition of the street’s appeal.”
Long-time neighboring business owners, such as Denise McShane of McShane's Exchange and O'Donnell, argue the structure will diminish the allure of the dozens of fashion boutiques and unique small businesses that draw foot traffic to Armitage from all parts of the city.
"I can't get anyone to come from Bucktown to come to Walgreens," McShane said. "You talk about neat and quaint. What are they doing? They are vanilla boxing the neighborhood."
O'Donnell's father, who has owned a stretch of storefronts along Armitage since 1967, recently poured about $50,000 to restore and repaint the historic window bays, cornices and turrets of the building to retain the style of the neighborhood, which was built up between 1870 and 1930.
The Walgreens developer is exempt from following strict building guidelines that neighboring owners must follow because the land was not included in the Armitage-Halsted Historic District in 2003 when it was home to The Greater Little Rock Baptist Church. That exemption rolled over when the building was purchased for a reported $2.65 million.
After the initial community meeting with the developer in October, Ald. Smith "insisted the developer follow the City of Chicago guidelines for building in a landmark district."
In that statement posted to the alderman's website shortly after the meeting, Smith stated that "We cannot allow this developer of Walgreen's [sic] to take advantage of a loophole that excluded the site from the landmark district."
Last week in an email sent to ward residents, Smith stated she has "strongly encouraged the developer to meet voluntarily with the Landmarks Commission to get feedback on their plan." It is not clear if the developer met with the commission, but according to city records, the development has never gone before the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
One aspect of the development that Smith has control over is the sale of liquor, which she has prevented at the proposed Walgreens through a liquor moratorium that covers the entire north side of the block.
On April 8, Smith, along with the Sheffield Neighborhood Association and members of Walgreens and their development team, will host a meeting at St. James Church, 2050 N. Fremont St., from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Nuelle said she received a flyer on her front step about the meeting from the alderman's office, and hopes that neighbors show up in mass.
"I appreciated that the alderman's office is doing their part to get the word out," she said.