PORTAGE PARK — Plans to turn a long-vacant former bank building in the Six Corners Shopping District into a grocery store are in limbo as the owner and Ald. John Arena (45th) debate whether the original building — and the historic theater inside — can be salvaged.
Mike Bousis, owner of Cermak Fresh Market, bought the vacant Bank of America building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road in April and announced plans to turn it into a full-scale grocery store featuring ethnic foods, a full-service bakery and prepared food.
The project would require a change in the property's zoning and the alderman's support.
But now Bousis said he is reconsidering his original plan to tear down both the former bank building and a single-story store he owns next to build the new supermarket. Arena is pushing him to save the theater so it can be part of the burgeoning arts and entertainment district at Six Corners, Bousis said.
"We're trying to make the numbers work," Bousis said. "We're giving it our best shot."
However, Bousis is not sure it's possible to save the theater and open the full-service grocer he has planned — and he said he's prepared to wait out the alderman if necessary.
"We can wait until the next [aldermanic] election," Bousis said. "Arena only won by 30 votes."
Arena has not announced whether he plans to run for re-election in 2015, nor has anyone else announced plans to challenge him.
Arena described his working relationship with Bousis and his representatives as "very productive" and said he and Bousis share the same goal of returning the property to active use, one that could energize Six Corners.
Still, Arena said it makes sense to exhaust every possibility before demolishing the 300-seat theater on the second floor of the bank building, which was once home to the Northwest Chicago Film Society. Movies were shown there from 1971 to 2010, and the theater became an institution on the far Northwest Side famous for its incongruous location inside a bank branch.
"We want development that fits," Arena said. "A theater would be great."
A city-commissioned master plan, completed in January, said efforts to revitalize the area around Irving Park Road and Cicero and Milwaukee avenues, which was once Chicago's premier shopping district outside the Loop, hinge on the redevelopment of the building, which has been vacant since 2011.
During that time, vandals stole some of the seats from the theater and ripped out copper wiring. In April, Bousis said the damage was too great to repair.
Arena said he understands the financial constraints Bousis is under — and the need for any project to make financial sense.
Bousis said he is now considering other locations in the general Six Corners area for the grocery store — since there would not be enough space to build the store and save the theater in the building.
"We want to expand our business, and we're in the grocery business," Bousis said.
In the end, it may not be possible to find another suitable piece of property in the area around Six Corners or nearby for a full-service grocery store like the one he wants to build, Bousis said.
The new store is expected to generate $30 million a year in sales, and employ between 150 and 200 people, he said.
"That's not a bad thing for the area, for the city," Bousis said. "How could [officials] say no to that?"
Bousis said he is prepared to demolish the buildings, fence off the property and let it sit vacant if Arena blocks the necessary zoning changes to build the grocery store.
"We'll just let it sit there," Bousis said. "That's not what we want to do. But if we have no other outs, that's what we'll do."
Bousis has not submitted a detailed redevelopment plan for the site — whether using the existing building or proposing a new structure to replace the nearly 63,500-square-foot building, which covers half a city block between Lamon and Lavergne avenues, to Arena's office, the first step in the city approvals process.
"All of this is conjecture at this point," Arena said, adding that he would submit any proposal to the community for input. "I plan to keep the conversation going."
Building a grocery store on the site would raise a number of issues, including the need to remove an alley, relocate utility equipment and accommodate the area's pedestrian overlay zoning district, which is designed to protect walkable shopping districts.
In addition, the property has both residential and commercial zoning designations, and is next to a residential area, and a grocery store could cause conflict, Arena said.