EAST VILLAGE — The owners of a botanical craft beer company are hoping to drum up support for a plan to build a brewery, tap room and education space in West Town's East Village neighborhood.
But a longstanding liquor ban and a commercial manufacturing zoning are serving as hurdles for the owners of Forbidden Root, who hope to open at 1746 W. Chicago Ave., just east of Damen and Chicago Avenues.
Last April, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) promised members of an influential community group, the East Village Association, that he would not agree to support any more liquor establishments until the end of his current term in February 2015 in an area that is mostly dry .
Moreno had lifted a liquor moratorium allowing Garden Gourmet, a small neighborhood market at 1130 N. Ashland Ave., to sell beer and wine.
In a letter posted on Facebook, Neal McKnight, president of the East Village Association, outlined the group's concerns about Forbidden Root. Those concerns revolve around the possibility that the commercial or C zoning that Forbidden Root is seeking "can have negative impacts on surrounding residents." Such zoning could open the door to other businesses such as pawn shops, tattoo parlors and taverns that are not required to serve food.
"The proposed zoning changes constitute spot zoning, which is contrary to the existing zoning. Inconsistent adjoining uses ultimately causes problems for the business and impacted neighbors. Preventing these conflicts is the very purpose of zoning," McKnight wrote.
Since Forbidden Root would be brewing beer and serving it, as well as making beer available for sale, the group is requesting that the owners consider working within the existing zoning, which allows for an incidental liquor license, which would permit a restaurant on the premises.
Owned by Robert Finkel, Forbidden Root Benefit LLC is a start-up company that designs the beer it brews around herbs, roots, and spices instead of infusing an existing beer with flavor, Finkel said.
If a zoning change is received and the ban lifted, Finkel — who runs Forbidden Root with alchemist Randy Mosher and brewer BJ Pichman — said the brewery would bring about 15 jobs to the neighborhood.
Finkel said they chose Chicago Avenue because it's "relatively free of big chains or cookie-cutter operations," and it's in the same neighborhood where Pichman lives with his family.
"We didn’t want a commercial corridor or a retail/restaurant strip. We actively want to work with local purveyors," Finkel said.
Built in 1913, the building at 1746 W. Chicago Ave. was a movie theater that closed in the early 1990s and most recently was used as an office for Catholic Charities.
Forbidden Root said it plans to use about 70 percent of the 7,000 square-foot building for brewing beer. The remainder would house a taproom that would seat about 100 people and an event space for seminars, special tastings and guest lectures.
As a benefit corporation, the company would donate all profits from its nonconsumables, such as merchandise, to nonprofits, such as the Green City Market, Finkel said.
Though the East Village Association has concerns about the zoning changes, the West Town Chamber of Commerce's executive board supports Forbidden Root, as does Richard Alcala, owner of Alcala's Western Wear at 1733 W. Chicago Ave.
"Half the storefronts are empty. We need more new businesses to help the street and everyone around it," said Alcala, whose shop is across the street from the empty building.
Julie Ghatan, owner of Dovetail, a vintage clothing shop at 1452 W. Chicago Ave. and the president of the West Town Chamber's board of directors, said [East Village Association] is "not an accurate representation of how the neighborhood feels about the issue."
In a mass email Thursday, Kara Salgado, executive director of the West Town Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber believes the restrictive zoning and moratorium is "truly hurting Chicago Avenue."
"[Forbidden Root] would be great for the neighborhood. It would create jobs, increase commerce and serve as a quality anchor business on Chicago Avenue," Salgado said.
Though a scheduling conflict prevents Moreno from atttending Thursday's meeting, Moreno's spokesman Matt Bailey said, a representative from the alderman's office will be there "to observe."
Late Sunday, McKnight said representatives from his group plan to attend the meeting at the proposed brewery.
Though no lease has been signed, Pichman said the company has had detailed conversations with the building owners and has retained an architect, brewery engineer, interior designer and greenhouse expert.
Finkel said he'd invest at least $1 million into setting up the brewery.
"The issue appears to be the political will to make the hard decision to lift a well-intended protection for the benefit of the neighborhood. This is not our decision, and we are grateful for open minds to hear the facts," Finkel said.