PORTAGE PARK — A plan to turn a long-vacant bank building into a grocery store and gym while saving a historic theater and creating space for nonprofit arts organizations got a mostly positive reception Wednesday night at a community meeting hosted by Ald. John Arena (45th).
The approximately $16 million proposal calls for the first floor of the former Bank of America building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road to be transformed into a grocery store and the first Retro Fitness gym in Chicago.
The development, which promises to reshape half a city block between Lamon and Lavergne avenues on the western edge of the Six Corners Shopping District, would benefit the community by "filling a hole in our shopping district," Arena told the standing-room only crowd.
A 300-seat theater on the second floor, which was once home to the Northwest Chicago Film Society, would be restored, and offices for medical services and nonprofit arts groups carved out of the former bank building.
Many residents thanked the development team for considering Six Corners — an area that got its first national chain restaurant less than a year ago when Chipotle opened.
"I am excited about no longer seeing a vacant storefront," said Glenn Brown, a Portage Park resident.
Others said they favored the development, but were concerned that it would snarl traffic in an area that is often gridlocked during rush hour. Side streets are also often clogged with drivers searching for a way around the congestion or get around one-way streets, residents said.
Gale Fabisch, the president of the Six Corners Association, said the proposal was the best the area had gotten in nearly a decade.
"It is very neighborhood friendly," Fabisch said. "People will walk here."
The theater would be a nice addition to the other cultural attractions in the area that have been key to launching Six Corners' ongoing renaissance, Arena said.
"This is another part of the broader picture that helps," Arena said.
It is uncertain whether one nonprofit group or a coalition would manage the theater, said Anthony Alfano, Arena's director of economic development.
The project has asked city officials for $2.5 million from the Portage Park Tax Increment Financing District.
Without public money, the project is not feasible, said David Bossy, of MidAmerica Real Estate Group, a member of the development team put together by attorney Charles Cui, who is under contract to buy the 50,000-square-foot building.
The tax money is needed to preserve the theater and completely renovate the building built in the 1960s that was gutted by vandals four years ago and make it environmentally sensitive and efficient, Bossy said.
"Everything is tied together," Bossy said, adding that it would not be possible to borrow enough money to finance the project without a contribution from the city.
Retro Fitness has signed a lease for the high-profile property, and Aldi grocery stores has signed a letter of intent, a step short of a lease, to open in the renovated building, which has been vacant since 2011.
Several residents urged the developers to pursue a Trader Joe's grocery store rather than an Aldi's, saying they were not likely to shop at the discount store, known for making shoppers pay a 25-cent deposit to use a cart and bring their own shopping bags.
But Nick Kryczka, who lives in Jefferson Park, said he shopped at Aldi to feed his family of four, and said the grocery would be an asset to the neighborhood and provide good jobs.
"Someone has to speak up for Aldi, so I'll do it," Kryczka said, garnering loud applause.
Coffee giant Starbucks also signed a letter of intent to open near Irving Park Road and Lamon Avenue near the former bank building on the western edge of Six Corners in an area that would allow a drive-thru to be built, Arena said.
The Wisconsin-based "Butter Burger" and custard chain Culver's has also signed a letter of interest to open near the renovated bank building, Bossy said.
Other companies that have been approached to lease space in the development include Panera Bread and Five Guys burgers, Bossy said.
If approved by city officials, construction could start this fall, with the first stores opening in summer 2016, Bossy said.
The new plan for the long-vacant parcel comes as Arena faces an April 7 runoff against Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido to retain his seat on the Chicago City Council.
Garrido, who attended the meeting but did not address the crowd, said afterward a previous proposal to tear down the building and build a full-service grocery store required no public money.
The project would create between 75 and 100 construction jobs and 100 to 150 full-time jobs and generate $300,000 in sales tax revenue for the city, Bossy said.
The project requires a zoning change because the building's 260-space parking lot is erroneously zoned residential. The lot also must comply with city laws requiring landscaping around surface parking, officials said.
The project would remove the alley between the building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road to expand the existing parking lot and create a plaza near the entrance to the grocery store and fitness center.
The proposed development "honors the intent" of the master plan approved by the city in 2013, Arena 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 former bank building, according to the master plan.
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