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A Year Later, Humboldt Landlord's Dream of Thriving Corner Coming to Life

By Darryl Holliday | April 28, 2015 9:40am

HUMBOLDT PARK — Last year, Humboldt Park landlord Gino Battaglia laid out a vision for sweeping changes at California Avenue and Augusta Boulevard. Nearly a year to the day later, the intersection bears his mark.

It's a plan that's been 14 years in the making, he told DNAinfo Chicago last May 1. And after some storefront closures on the block last year, it’s a plan that slowly has transitioned recently, including a new lease-signing for the former Knockbox Café; an opening of a bar and restaurant last weekend; a coffee shop opening Monday; and a pie shop opening set for June.

Humboldt Park landlord Gino Battaglia at the Clipper before it was renovated.

From Knockbox Cafe to C.C. Ferns Coffee

The plan already is starting to align with Battaglia's vision — including a new coffee shop from Brendan Sodikoff that opened quietly at 2806 W. Augusta Blvd., attached to the Augusta-facing wall of the California Clipper. The new C.C. Ferns aims to help “fill the void left by Knockbox [Café],” according to shop manager Ryan Bailey, who said he hoped to turn the new shop into “a neighborhood spot.”

Click Here For an Inside Look at the New C.C Ferns

But while the master plan for California and Augusta always included a coffee shop, it touches a lingering sore spot in the neighborhood — the closing of Knockbox Café at the intersection’s northeast corner in September.

The untimely end of Knockbox was “unfortunate,” Battaglia said Monday, but the space was underutilized — it had the capacity to host a full-service restaurant even when it was being used as a café. Property values have risen at the location since negotiations with Knockbox owner Jonah Shalack to buy the building from Battaglia ended without a deal, he added.

In fact, the neighborhood is changing all around Knockbox, Battaglia said — single-family homes around the block are now selling for $600,000. But Battaglia said he still feels that Humboldt Park needs “a coffee shop to act as a bridge between the older residents and the next generation.”

Knockbox Cafe's owner Jonah Shalack. The cafe at California and Augusta closed last year.

New Deals Inked for Old Locations

Meanwhile, Humboldt Park residents have waited and speculated on the papered-up building at 1001 N. California Ave. since Knockbox closed. It’s a piece of the intersection Battaglia settled this week when a lease was signed with one of his original tenants and a familiar presence at the intersection. A partnership between Rootstock owners and its chef Mike Simmons was inked for the location on Saturday.

Rootstock, 954 N. California Ave., was opened by former Webster's Wine Bar workers in 2009 and has thrived in the neighborhood as places around it shuttered. It was one of Battaglia's first tenants at the intersection.

Its new spot across the street in the former Knockbox will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and feature a retail section as well, where local residents can pick up a bottle of wine or some specialty foods, according to Simmons, whose wife, Valerie Szafranski, will be part of the operation.

The project is set to open directly across the street from the Sodikoff-owned California Clipper, (which reopened in September at 1002 N. California Ave.). In addition to C.C Ferns, which opened Monday, and Cheap Tart Bakery, the first brick-and-mortar operation from Dinah Grossman, will bring pie and ice cream to 1000 N. California Ave. by June. 

That project is kitty corner to the third offering on the block from Sodikoff. Last year, he said he would transform the shuttered Discount Muffler and Brake, which occupies a 2,800-square-foot location in a 1920s building, into a casual dining spot with an “approachable price point” and lots of outdoor space. Battaglia said he was not sure when the spot would open.

That’s all in addition to the long-awaited Haywood Tavern, 2759 W. Augusta Blvd., which opened Saturday night to a full house at the bustling corner.

Click Here For an Inside Look at the Haywood Tavern

The Next Five Years at California and Augusta

The intersection of California and Augusta is poised for more change. Last May, Battaglia estimated that his plan would come to fruition around 2020, when all of his pieces were in place and established.

He hopes to tackle growing traffic congestion through deals with nearby institutions like ChiArts High School or Norwegian Hospital and to see retail operations fill the gaps along the intersection.

Ashley Trumbo, a three-year resident of the California and Augusta intersection who works at her family business just up the street, said her emotions vary between excitement and nervousness about the pace of change.

“I do think the neighborhood needs a coffee shop, [but] what I liked about Knockbox was that it was very much a neighborhood coffee shop,” she said. “My family owns a business on the same block as the Clipper, so I guess I should be happy about this changing. However, it's a double-edged sword because landlords are the ones running the neighborhood. If Knockbox got kicked out, whose to say we won't?”

“Rent will increase, and small businesses like ours and Knockbox will have a harder time with competition,” she added.

While there’s no doubt the neighborhood is rapidly changing, Battaglia said his tenants could keep things changing for the better by being good and responsible neighbors.

He also said he appreciates that his residents have been amenable to the gradual shifts around the key Humboldt Park intersection.

“Things are not put together over night,” he said Monday. “This has been a plan for 15 years. It just took a long time.”

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