LOGAN SQUARE — Although the Logan Square Megamall is now virtually empty and could be in line for a huge redevelopment, longtime residents who were there through the mall's tumultuous 20-year history remember it as a hotbed of commerce and culture in the neighborhood.
The Discount Megamall at 2500 N. Milwaukee Avenue once offered an assortment of restaurants and shops selling clothing, cellphones, gym shoes and all manner of tchotchkes. But it also has been in poor condition and in constant need of repair virtually since it opened in 1995, many say.
“There was a time when it was ... a big bazaar. A lot of people hated it, and a lot of people swore by it," said Ald. Rey Colon (35th), who used to represent the area around the Megamall before his ward boundaries changed.
Major players at the 166,000-square-foot retail hub called it a vital “small-business incubator” and a “modern eyesore” in the same breath.
While it boosted the neighborhood’s Latino and Korean communities, "the Megamall was rundown from day one,” a former vendor said.
“That was the beginning of the end”
The indoor flea market once boasted about 150 small storefronts. That number has dwindled to a "ghost town" of about eight shops and just a few customers on any given day.
Over the years, though, the Megamall has survived despite being slapped with more than 100 building code violations, a yearlong shutdown, a move by the city to seize it via eminent domain and a 2007 fire that reduced the showroom space to less than a third of its original size.
Erik Merlos, 52, was among the original vendors when the Megamall opened in 1995. By the time the entrepreneur ended his run in 2005, he owned a mix of eight restaurant, retail and clothing lots in the mall, including Mosquito Hut Records, Homies Surplus and Urban Wear.
He now owns X-it European Clothing, 2950 W. Fullerton Ave., a stand-alone Logan Square clothing and tailoring outlet. He said he has mixed feelings about his Megamall years.
Vendors paid $200 per week to rent each 8-by-10-foot business space and he estimated that the entire mall grossed $80,000 in weekly sales, but full restoration and infrastructure investment was never made.
At its peak, he said the mall was the main commercial market for the Latino community in and around Logan Square, where haggling for the best deal was the norm. The mall was home to vibrant street art, shared culture and a variety of food stands, even though it was the site of regular gang conflicts.
“It’s a little chunk of history in Logan Square,” Merlos said.
According to Colon, Merlos is a perfect example of a small business incubated in the Megamall that eventually became a successful independent shop in the neighborhood.
But its history also took a toll on many small-business owners. When at least 112 building code violations temporarily shut the Megamall in 2005, owners were stuck without that source of income for a year and a half.
“They thought it would be a day or a week, but it was closed for 18 months,” Merlos said.
“They say there are two things that can ruin a marriage: sex and money. Let's just say the Megamall caused a lot of divorces,” he added.
"The elusive Megamall project"
Colon said the mall was poorly maintained and managed, leading to ongoing complaints from the neighborhood about safety concerns, illegal tattoo parlors and businesses operating without licenses.
“It had its heyday … but it never fully recovered. When it got shut down, that was the beginning of the end,” he said.
Current building owner Kyun Hee Park was in Korea and unavailable for comment, said mall manager Bae Kim.
Kim declined to comment on the past, present or future of the complex.
Although plans to turn the Megamall to an upscale retail complex recently were announced, Colon urged the area’s current alderman, Scott Waguespack (32nd), “not to hold his breath too long.” The site saw five similar redevelopment proposals when Colon represented the area — and all failed to materialize.
Those old plans from a variety of developers included a grocery store, a year-round farmers market and a cultural center. Putting a park at the site garnered 75 percent of the votes in a 2006 advisory referendum — but nothing happened.
Redeveloping the mall has "been a rehashed idea that has not materialized," Colon said. “But I understand a lot of components from the past are moving forward now. It’s a necessary and important strip — one that people have been asking about for many years. It’s the missing link.”
The Megamall sits on what is considered a strategically vital piece of land between two of Logan Square’s booming commercial districts on Milwaukee Avenue — an increasingly popular strip housing several new businesses, with more set to arrive in coming months.
“Connecting Milwaukee Avenue to its full potential with the Megamall is a very, very important part of bridging the gap, and I’m thinking it's time,” Colon said. “I’m hoping this [latest development proposal] is the one.
“It’s something that has taken a lot of time, and I feel like I’ve come up empty-handed,” he added. “I call it 'the elusive Megamall project.' ”
A plan for Logan’s Crossing
If current plans are realized, the Megamall will be torn down and renamed “Logan’s Crossing.” According to developer Scott Gendell, there’s “certainly demand” for a grocery store on the lot next to a health club and other retail.
The Megamall's former vendors and customers, as well as politicians and community organizers, say the planned renovation of the outlet is one of the clearest markers of change in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
Irene Luz, 20, who works at one of the last three clothing shops at the Megamall, remembers getting ice cream and toys there when she was 7 years old.
“When you used to ditch school you’d come here,” she said after ringing up the market’s sole customer on a recent weekday.
It’s “an easy job” she’s been working for about six months, she said, shrugging nonchalantly when asked what she’ll do if the Megamall closes.
“I guess we’re all gonna have to leave,” she said.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: