The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Wilson Avenue in Uptown in Flux; Businesses Grapple with Changes

By Josh McGhee | February 2, 2016 9:51am

UPTOWN — Mary Alejandro says she has been behind the counter at Sheridan Park Food and Liquor so long that customers just call her "Grandma."

After 46 years, she can definitely say that the area has changed, especially along Wilson Avenue near the store at 1255 W. Wilson Ave.

"Before it was very diverse, but they sold the big buildings for condominiums," said Alejandro, adding the changes have thinned the nearby population, but also added new neighbors.

"Now, the neighborhood is better. There's less violence. It's very quiet and very nice. The new people who live in the neighborhood are very well educated," she said. "People come in and they take care of the neighborhood, but the small business is hurting."

Mary Alejandro has owned Sheridan Park Food and Liquors, at 1255 W. Wilson Ave., for over 46 years. [DNAinfo/Josh McGhee]

Recently, the changes have left about 15 storefronts vacant from Broadway to Clark Street along Wilson Avenue, she said. At the end of 2015, two local businesses — the Magnolia Cafe at 1244 W. Wilson Ave.,and Luna's Salon and Spa at 1217 W. Wilson Ave. — also closed.

"We would like to thank you for supporting Luna Salon and Spa for the past 3+ years. Unfortunately, we will be permanently closing as of 12.31.15. It has been a great adventure as a new business in Uptown, but we will be moving in new directions with the New Year," spa staff told Uptown Update in a statement.

After the cafe closed, its owner, Kasra Medhat, wasn't optimistic about the area.

"Oh well, hope the new tenants survive. I wish them luck," he said via email. "The building maintenance is constant, and the neighborhood will unfortunately never come around in my opinion. I may be wrong, but I gave it 13 years, and it seemed to get worse."

Alejandro said the loss of buildings like Wilson Tower, once a place for low-income tenants at 1325 W. Wilson Ave., have meant fewer families in the neighborhood.

"The economy is hurting. Before this neighborhood had all kinds of people living here. [Wilson Tower] was a big hotel. They emptied the building and now they're renting at high rents. That's what's missing, we don't have the people, the families, that were in the neighborhood," she said.

To appeal to new customers, she's upgraded her products.

"If you don't have the capital to upgrade your business, it's done. But the money is here" and there's "a want for businesses," she said.

FLATS Chicago has purchased several buildings along Wilson Avenue the last four years. [DNAinfo/Josh McGhee]

The  now rehabbed 12-story Wilson Tower was purchased in 2012 by FLATS Chicago, which has heavily invested in the area. The company, which owns at least four properties along Wilson Avenue, is also looking at acquiring more, officials said.

"We think Wilson Avenue, being a core street in Uptown, has a lot of potential and we're really interested in redeveloping the area," said Mark Heffron, a partner with Cedar Street., which owns FLATS Chicago.

In January of 2015, Cedar Street purchased the Wilson Avenue Theater, at 1050 W. Wilson Ave. for $625,000. The rehab of the old theater, built in 1908, should be completed in 2017; the company has said it is seeking “a unique tenant that not only respects the grandeur of the space, but also adds value to the Uptown community.” 

Also in January of 2015, Cedar purchased a single-story building at Wilson Avenue and Magnolia Avenue for $750,000, where Starbucks serves as their anchor tenant. "We're still looking for the right tenants to revitalize that structure," Heffron said.

The group also has a project at 1140 W. Wilson Ave. that's opening in the second quarter of this year, he said.

The company says it was drawn to Uptown because of a combination of factors including being surrounded by "established neighborhoods" such as Edgewater and Rogers Park, access to the lake and transportation.

In 2014, the CTA invested $203 million into the reconstruction of the Wilson "L" Station though, in the meantime, some of the businesses along Broadway say they are just "hoping to survive" until the project, scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2017, is finished.

Property owners in Uptown have also been focusing on preserving buildings along Broadway by proposing it as a landmark district. The distinction would include the McJunkin Building, at 4520-4570 N. Broadway, the Wilson 'L' Station and the Wilson Avenue Theater, at 1050 W. Wilson Ave.

"The neighborhood itself has a great vibe and a lot of that will be preserved through landmark status," said Heffron.

About 18 years ago, Helen Obaseki was looking all over the city for a place to start her restaurant, before starting Mama Osas African Restaurant at 1027 W. Wilson Ave.

"I looked for a place downtown and it was so expensive. So I bought it from a lady who was moving out. It was busy over here, near transportation and there was a lot of Africans around," she said.

While the area has changed, "it's still developing," she said.

"Now, we have more African restaurants, so there's competition. We've been keeping our customers. They go, but they always come back," said Obaseki, adding their absence never made her fear for the restaurant. "The economy is really down and that affects the business owners and the patrons."


For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: