PORTAGE PARK — As a year-old proposal to build a Starbucks drive-thru at the intersection of Central Avenue and Irving Park Road approaches a crucial hurdle next week, a pair of neighborhood groups claiming to represent the area have staked out opposing positions on the plan.
Having unveiled the proposal in June, developer Sumac would need a special permit from the city's Zoning Board of Appeals in order to build the 2,269 square-foot "coffee shop with drive thru" marked in its plan. The board is scheduled to vote on the matter during its April 21 meeting.
The plan also calls for the construction of a 7,245 square-foot "commercial building" on the same lot.
Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) has supported the proposal almost from the outset, calling the current site — a long-vacant lot caged in barbed-wire fencing — an "eyesore" whose redevelopment is long past due.
But leaders of the Portage Park Neighborhood Association released a letter Sunday denouncing the plan, calling its entrance and exit configuration for cars "unacceptable." Pointing to a copy of the site development plan they'd obtained from Sumac, the group wrote that allowing drivers to make left turns onto either of two major thoroughfares would pose a serious safety risk.
The plan marks a 7,245 square-foot "commercial building" with a smaller "coffee shop with drive thru" next door. [Sumac]
"It's dangerous already when you have six lanes of traffic there, with two bus stops blocking visibility," Phillip Schwartz, the vice president of the association, said earlier this month. "Can you imagine what happens when someone wants to make a left turn and people are zipping around to the right, or if someone's trying to cross three turn lanes?"
At a November community meeting, Schwartz asked the developer if the plan could be tweaked to include so-called "pork chop entrances," which curve to ensure that cars can only enter by making right-hand turns, according to the letter. The group was "dismayed" to see that the change wasn't made, it continued.
Plus, while Sposato has assured neighbors that Sumac is designing the smaller building with Starbucks in mind, Schwartz noted that the café franchise hasn't made a public bid for the location, opening the possibility that another operator could swoop in.
The Seattle-based coffee chain has been known to guard plans for new locations, typically waiting until construction finishes before it announces any commitment to a new property.
"The question is that if you don't get the Starbucks that you're hailing as the savior of the neighborhood, what happens if it ends up being a half-KFC, half-Taco Bell?" Schwartz said. "Because once you put a drive-thru in there, they're going to find a business that wants it, if Starbucks doesn't."
But neighbors hoping to spur development can't afford to turn their noses up at a proposal for a new business, according to David Feller, president of the nascent West Portage Park Neighbors Association.
"There are always people in community meetings who say we need to be supporting local businesses and not big box stores, but at the end of the day you need both," Feller said. "If you think independent businesses are going to bolster the revitalization of a commercial corridor, you're hitting on a fool's errand."
Founded last year with a goal of breathing new life into an area dotted with empty storefronts, Feller's group lent the Starbucks proposal an official endorsement in the form of a Wednesday Facebook post.
The association isn't alone in its support for the proposal. The plan also has the blessing of the Portage Park Chamber of Commerce, president George Borovik said.
But supporters have yet to win over Robert Quezada, the owner of Portage Grounds, 5501 W. Irving Park Road.
"I'm hopeful that maybe they can bring more foot traffic, or get some of the overflow from people who don't want to wait in line" for Starbucks, Quezada said. "But inevitably, I'm really scared that they're going to take our customers. We're still trying to pay back debt from when we opened, and I'm afraid we're going to have to shut down before we get there."
Quezada also echoed Schwartz's warnings about traffic safety, saying he's "very concerned" about pedestrians crossing over from the adjacent Portage Park.
But to Sposato, the fear of drivers making ill-advised left turns is no reason to change the project's design, he said.
"Every meeting, someone brings up this concern about cars making left turns, but at the end of the day, there's nothing we can do about it unless we keep a [police] squad car out there all day," Sposato said. "You can't stop people from driving like idiots."
Sumac has not responded to multiple requests for comment.