LINCOLN PARK — Plans to redevelop the Children's Memorial Hospital site are finally moving forward, which is welcome news for owners of neighboring businesses. They say they've watched the area go from "crazy busy" to "dead" since the hospital moved from its Lincoln Park location.
"It's only positive. The only negative thing is the fact that it took so long," said Amit Ahlowalia, who owns Mr. Smoke, 2250 N. Lincoln Ave., down the street from the hulking, vacant hospital.
The developers behind the redevelopment project, McCaffery Interests and Hines, finally closed the deal last week, which was first reported by DNAinfo Chicago. That means demolition, which is expected to take a year, should begin in the coming weeks.
Owners of businesses within walking distance say they're looking forward to the redevelopment, which will bring 540 residential units and 160,000 square feet of retail to the area. But with demolition expected to take a year and construction likely to take another 30 months, some struggling businesses may not be able to wait long enough to reap the benefits.
"I think some [business owners] think of it as an opportunity and they'll have the money to stick it out," said Matt Imig, owner of O'Malley's West, which has called 2249 N. Lincoln Ave. home for 16 years.
"There are others who might not be able to make it [while] waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen there," he said.
When Ahlowalia opened his smoke shop six years ago, the street was always packed. Police were stationed on the block on the weekends to make sure the bar crowd didn't get too out of hand, he said.
Today, the stretch of Lincoln Avenue that includes the vacant hospital is much quieter. Ahlowalia said businesses within walking distance of the hospital have been closing down "left and right" and there is no foot traffic. Earlier this month, Jamie Podgorny, the owner of vegan bakery, Fritz Pastry, announced she would be closing her business because she was unable to turn a profit.
"This whole block has really died down," said Ahlowalia, who named at least five neighboring businesses that have closed down in recent years.
That opinion was shared by Imig, who said business has "been horrible" since the hospital moved.
When the hospital was open, young doctors, nurses and people visiting the hospital frequented the local businesses, which "flourished" as a result, according to Jess Carr, manager of Insomnia Cookies, 2260 N. Lincoln Ave.
There used to be more bars on the stretch, too.
"People used to refer to Lincoln Avenue as a cruise ship because they'd hop around from bar to bar. We used to have buses and trolleys with bachelorette parties all the time. It used to be much more of a destination spot," Imig said.
Johnny Anastopoulos, who owns Johnny's Beef and Gyros, 2300 N. Lincoln Ave., said while his business has seen growth, many of his neighbors haven't been as lucky.
"We're definitely on the luckier end," said Anastopoulos, who moved into his current space 2½ years ago.
"Since we've been here, we've seen so many places open and close within two or three blocks. It's really sad. We've made some friends, and seen them come and go."
One thing that all of the business owners and managers interviewed by DNAinfo Chicago can agree on: Redeveloping the site, which has sat vacant since 2012, has taken longer than expected.
McCaffery Interests in 2011 was chosen to redevelop the site before the hospital even moved. In the years that followed, McCaffery and neighbors went back and forth debating over the project until it went to the city for approval. Along the way, a group of neighbors filed a lawsuit in hopes of stopping the project from happening. Dan McCaffery, chairman and CEO for McCaffery, has pointed to the lawsuit as one of the main reasons for the project's delay.
Anastopoulos referred to the project as a "big waiting game."
Even now, after a deal has been reached, he is skeptical that demolition will begin soon.
"The truth is: I'll believe it when I see it," Anastopoulos said. "There's been too much talk. We've learned not to get our hopes up."
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