ALBANY PARK — With a proposed Walgreens drawing complaints from Albany Park residents and Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), representatives from the drugstore chain and the property's developer, Centrum Partners, met with members of the community to face their critics.
Approximately 100 people packed Roosevelt High School's auditorium last week, the vast majority of them stating that while they support Walgreens in general, the design of the new store — planned for the corner of Lawrence and Kimball avenues — has serious flaws.
"Some people might say Albany Park is just Albany Park," said Mell as she kicked off the discussion. "I think it's a beautiful place. I want to fight for very smart design."
Walgreens is contracted for a 20-year lease, and the option to renew for another 75 years.
"I'm going to be here for the next 30 years," Eric Filson, a member of Albany Park Neighbors and West River Park Neighbors, said to the developers. "You're going to drive home tonight and it will be out of sight, out of mind."
Drawing the greatest opposition from the community: Centrum's intention to situate the store's parking lot, as opposed to the building itself, at the corner of the intersection, in effect making the lot the central focus of the development.
Cars turning in and out of the lot on both Lawrence and Kimball would wreak havoc not only on traffic but create dangerous conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly as the building would be located directly across the street from the Kimball Brown Line terminus, residents said.
Elliot Mason led a chorus of neighbors questioning the plan.
"I don't know that it needs parking at all," he said, a comment echoed by several others who cited the area's density and heavy concentration of pedestrian-friendly storefronts.
"I think it's an abomination," resident David Hrabal said of setting the building back from the street. "It's so anti-urban it makes me cringe."
Speaking on behalf of Albany Park Neighbors, Shylo Bisnett called for the "preservation of street-level retail" and "our vanishing urban corner."
In response, John McLinden, Centrum managing partner, offered a presentation slide that showed adjacent properties with parking and the lack of streetfront retail in the immediate vicinity of the planned Walgreens.
"We don't like being the strip mall center of Chicago," countered Carol Maher, representing the People of East Albany Park block club.
The Walgreens, attendees said, would only contribute to the deficit of streetfront shops.
In terms of safety, McLinden walked attendees through changes made to the initial design, which were aimed at addressing concerns.
The driveway on Lawrence Avenue has been reduced to right turn-in only, and the driveway on Kimball Avenue has been scrapped in favor of using an existing alley. The project will also add three-and-a-half feet to the sidewalk width on Kimball, where the number of people waiting for buses creates a "very uncomfortable situation," he said.
But as for moving the parking lot to the rear of the building — a set-up found at the Lincoln Square Walgreens at Western and Lawrence avenues — or eliminating it altogether, a la the new Walgreens in Lakeview, McLinden indicated those options were off the table.
"The bottom line is, the Walgreens operations group said, 'This does not work for us,'" he said. "They've said they won't come here with the building on the corner."
Todd Frank, senior real estate manager for Walgreens, reminded attendees that a number of residents don't have the ability to walk to the store, and added that the Lincoln Square location is an "anomaly" for the chain.
"It's a topic we're going to disagree on," he said of the parking issue.
Secondary to the parking debate, neighbors also bemoaned the loss of the existing structure, which Walgreens would demolish.
"It's the only building with any historic integrity left," argued Suzanne Germann, a resident who also works for Landmarks Illinois. "Maybe Walgreens isn't the proper tenant,"
McLinden said Centrum did investigate the feasibility of repurposing the existing building.
He explained that the building, at 9,000 square feet, wasn't large enough to accommodate the 13,000-square-foot store Walgreens had planned. Additionally, he said, the building isn't a single unit — it's actually been cobbled together from multiple incompatible structures.
Reuse is "simply not an option," he concluded.
As a concession, Centrum had its architects adjust the original design, which had a decidedly contemporary look. McLinden presented a number of renderings, including concepts that featured more traditional awnings and cornices, as well as a brick color more in keeping with neighboring buildings.
The various compromises proposed by Centrum weren't enough to sway the opinion of many of those in attendance.
Liz Markel, an Albany Park resident and cycling advocate, said there are already five Walgreens within a mile of the proposed store, "and that seems a little ridiculous."
Rather than developing a store that attracts people who zip in and out of the area, she would rather see the building used for a purpose that encourages people to "participate in the neighborhood."
"I don't think [Walgreens] is the business for this space," said Markel.
At the end of the meeting, the two sides appeared to be at a stalemate, with Walgreens insistent on corner parking and the community calling for the opposite.
"You're saying this is all you can do," said Bisnett. "We're asking you to work with us and what we're telling you."
For Centrum and Walgreens, the frustration was evident, particularly as, according to McLinden, the project has been in the works for more than a year and had received the blessing of former Ald. Dick Mell, who retired in July 2013.
"We went through the process," said Frank. "There was no intent to force feed a development on the ward."
Deb Mell, named to replace her father on City Council, only learned of Walgreens' plans — "a big, huge development in the heart of Albany Park" — in November and immediately engaged the community, while also signaling her opposition.
"We spent $250,000" in development costs to date, "only to find out that the new alderman said, 'Wait,'" said McLinden.
So what's next?
"We all go back and think a little bit," said Mell. "We'll see. We'll see where the negotiations go from here."