By Ben Joravsky
A happy bunch of bankers, developers, and politicians gathered last week beneath a billowing tent in a parking lot on Belmont Avenue. They were there to praise Mayor Daley and celebrate the revival of the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland commercial district--one of the oddest economic-development success stories in recent history.
What's odd is not that people were praising Daley or that the district came back, but that it went sour in the first place--it's in the far western corner of Lakeview, one of the city's most prosperous north-side communities. "I didn't think it would take so long," says Peter Donoghue, president of the Lakeview Citizens Council, the area's largest community group. "It took the business district a little longer to catch up with what's been going on with the residential development."
In the last few months Whole Foods has opened a grocery store on Ashland, and ground has been broken on at least five large, upscale retail/residential developments. The story of the area's revival reveals how tricky and fickle development can be. "It takes a strange combination of market forces, government financing, and community persistence for a community to take off, and let me emphasize the persistence," says Donoghue. "You've got to push, push, push. We had guys going to meetings for years. I mean Ivan Bender, Chester Majerowicz, and Joanne Macias, these people just wouldn't let this thing die; they literally nudged the city into doing something about this."
The district thrived in the days when almost every neighborhood had its own business strip, a little downtown where locals shopped for everything from shoes to furniture. The Lakeview strip, running along Lincoln from Wellington to Roscoe, bustled more than most, with more than 50 shops, restaurants, and stores, including a Woolworth, a Wieboldt's, and a Goldblatt's.
But by the early 70s the malls of suburbia were pulling shoppers away. And by the mid 80s, over 15 percent of the stores on the strip were vacant; Wieboldt's and Goldblatt's, once giants of local retail, pulled out, leaving behind enormous old buildings.
By the 90s there was no shortage of experts with explanations. The shopping district was, they said, too old-fashioned for modern tastes. There wasn't enough parking, there was too much traffic congestion--you couldn't zip in and out. As for the stores themselves, they weren't upscale, they didn't have ambience, there weren't coffee shops or yogurt stores or fancy boutiques.
"I'm not saying that a Woolworth or a Wieboldt's isn't a good store, it's just old-fashioned," says Donoghue. "Look at the trends in shopping; you go to a bookstore, and they're selling you fresh-roasted coffee. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but the world's changing."
There was a brief surge of hope after JMB-Urban Properties (a real-estate conglomerate) bought a huge chunk of property in the district and announced plans to build housing, stores, and parking. But that deal died several years ago for lack of financing, and in the end it might have hurt more than it helped.
"There were some nice neighborhood stores--a shoe store, a sub sandwich shop--that allowed themselves to be bought out for that project," says Donoghue. "A lot of the landlords kept rents high. I guess they'd rather have empty stores than some business; I guess they figured to make a killing once JMB turned the place around."
In 1991, Alderman Bernard Hansen persuaded the City Council to designate the district a "blighted commercial area," making it eligible for certain federal, state, and local funds. In the next few years the city sunk about $7.5 million into the area through various subsidies, enticing developers. (Ironically, much of the new housing will be bought by wealthy people who claim to detest this sort of big-government spending.) The lesson for other communities is that it takes more than private market forces to spark a neighborhood's revival.
The redevelopment isn't complete. There are still some vacant storefronts as well as several businesses, like an adult bookstore, not normally associated with trendy shopping. And even an occasional visitor can't help but notice the glaring vacant lot at the heart of the main intersection.
But most observers figure it's only a matter of time before the district, for better or worse, resembles stretches of Lincoln Park. "The key's the lofts and complexes going in," says Donoghue. "These people are going to shop somewhere."
Last week's celebration under the tent drew most of the City Hall press corps, and was for LaSalle Bank, which recently renovated its central facility at Belmont and Ashland and converted a portion of the parking lot into a playground for a nearby Lutheran grade school.
John Newman, president and CEO of LaSalle Bank, began the ceremony by gesturing to the cloudless sky and thanking Daley for "another beautiful, fantastic day in Chicago." Then Norman Bobins, chairman of LaSalle Bank, thanked Daley for being such a wonderful mayor, after which Daley thanked Bobins for being such a fine appointee to the school board and reminisced about the "chilly day in December 18 months ago when they broke ground on the bank redevelopment project."
Then the mayor walked over to the playground to pose with a gaggle of children in bright white T-shirts around a new jungle gym. He was followed by a horde of reporters, cameramen, and photographers, who all but shoved the kids aside to get at the mayor. Sweating in the hot sun, Daley mumbled rambling responses to the reporters' questions about the great political issues of the day.
Afterward various vans and limos pulled up and returned the mayor and his reporters to City Hall.
Oh, and while we're on the subject of the ceremony, we can't overlook the day's biggest highlight. It came near the outset of Alderman Hansen's speech when, without warning, he interrupted his prepared remarks to say, "You know that 16-screen theater thing--that's dead. That's dead and gone."
The thing in question is a proposed seven-story, 3,800-seat, 16-screen movie theater (complete with a 350-space parking garage) that Hiffman Shaffer Associates was set to build just north of the intersection of Broadway, Diversey, and Clark. It had ignited fierce opposition from residents who oppose drawing more traffic to what's already among the city's most congested corners (Neighborhood News, July 5).
"I met with Hiffman Shaffer and told them if they couldn't work with the community, I couldn't support their project," Hansen elaborated in a postceremony interview.
But that's curious--the developer said he had the proper zoning and could and would build with or without Hansen's approval. Hansen responded, "Ha! If the mayor and I are against it, it won't get built--not in my ward anyway. And the mayor and I are against it. I'm telling you, the theater's dead."
Hiffman's key man on the project was out of town and unavailable for comment, though Hansen has a point: It's not a good idea to defy a mayor who's powerful enough to control the weather. Meanwhile, activists in other parts of town have already stepped forward to ask that Hiffman build the theater complex in their communities.
"We'd love to have a movie theater here," says Earnest Gates, who owns a west-side truck company and is a board member of the Near West Side Development Corporation.
Even 16 screens?
"The more the better," Gates says.
Working in conjunction with the city, the Bulls, and the Black Hawks, the Near West Side group has built hundreds of units of low- and moderate-income housing near the United Center; yet despite its residential success, it's had a hard time attracting commercial ventures. Apparently most developers are a cautious bunch, unwilling to invest in more than one or two upscale north-side neighborhoods.
"We have lots of people out here who go to movies, we just don't have any movie theaters for them to go to," says Gates. "Believe me, it would go over big. Give him our phone number, 738-2280; tell that developer to give us a call."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Peter Donoghue by Jon Randolph.