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Local Uptown Businesses Excited For Bouldering Gym To Join the Neighborhood

By Mina Bloom | February 10, 2015 9:27am
 First Ascent will be the first tenant at 4718 N. Broadway since Border's left in 2011.
First Ascent will be the first tenant at 4718 N. Broadway since Border's left in 2011.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

UPTOWN — First Ascent, an indoor bouldering gym, is moving into a long-vacant historic Uptown building that has been empty for the past four years, which is welcome news for some managers and owners of nearby local businesses.

"The more things for people to do here, the better," said Tigist Reda, owner of nearby Demera Ethiopian Restaurant. "I think it's great."

Steve Milford, manager of Crew Bar & Grill, agreed, saying "foot traffic is the key for everyone."

"We'll help them and they'll help us," he added.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) announced in a letter to constituents Monday that the gym would be moving into the second floor of the building that formerly housed Border's Bookstore, 4718 N. Broadway. The bookstore closed in 2011 when the national chain filed for bankruptcy. Before Border's, the building was home to Goldblatt's, a department store that was open from 1931 to 1998.

Bouldering is rock climbing without ropes or harnesses, explained Jon Shepard, co-founder of First Ascent. It also a distinct social aspect to it, he said. People often cheer each other on and figure out how to do the climbs together, he added.

At the Uptown gym, there will be 10,000 square feet of bouldering walls ranging from 15 to 18 feet tall. Climbers will be able to get to the top using a series of five to 10 moves, said Shepard, who is also an attorney. The gym will also have a yoga studio as well as weight and fitness equipment.

A year after Border's closed, local developer Joshua Mintzer bought the building. Since then, Mintzer has been waiting for the right tenant to fill the vacancy, according to the Keith McCormick, the executive director at the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. 

Cappleman helped Mintzer install big billboards, which generated the funds that allowed him to wait, but were met with mixed community reactions.

The building is situated in an area that community leaders are hoping to transform into an entertainment district. 

When asked how an indoor gym fits the vision for an entertainment district, McCormick said bouldering is a "continuum of entertainment."

He added: "It's a workout, but it's a fun workout. Now you can go bouldering, see a show at the Riviera, go watch the World Cup at Crew [Bar & Grill]. Those are all very different ideas, but they all fit really well."

Mintzer was reached for comment, but declined to elaborate.

Shepard founded First Ascent with fellow bouldering enthusiast Dan Bartz. Almost all of their investors are either local rock climbers or connected to the rock climbing community in some way, Shepard said.

Now that they've leased the 14,000 square foot space, the next steps are finalizing the design and putting together three-dimensional renderings, he said.

It's a busy time for Shepard and his co-founder, who are also building a gym in Avondale, which will offer both bouldering and rock climbing.

Shepard said while bouldering is not a new trend around the country, it's relatively new to Chicago. In December, Brooklyn Boulders opened its first Midwest location in the West Loop.

"Maybe in the last 15 years or so, indoor climbing has taken on a life of its own," he said. "It's skyrocketed to popularity year after year."

Now that First Ascent is aiming to move into the second-floor space by late summer, Cappleman said he's focused on finding a ground-floor tenant, he said in the letter.

He's hoping it will be a restaurant with late night hours to compliment the outdoor plaza that will be installed later this year in front of the Riviera Theatre, the letter said.

"This will serve as another dining option for those taking advantage of the exciting night life that is developing in the area," Cappleman said in the letter.

A restaurant and an outdoor retail store is also a possibility, said Shepard, who added that he feels confident Mintzer will choose the right tenant.

The area is gradually starting to see more new businesses open. Uptown Underground is moving in across the street at 4707 N. Broadway and Level Up-town Arcade Bar will soon call 4830 N. Broadway home, a space that formerly housed the Annoyance Theatre.

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