The Big Takeover
With the South Loop booming, Tommy Gun's Garage found itself in developers' sights--with City Hall ready to pull the trigger.
By Sarah Downey
The telephone rang in the back room of Tommy Gun's Garage, and owner Sandy Mangen took the call. It was some guy representing Jewel Food Stores, and he wanted to know if she wanted to sell.
Mangen knew that Jewel was developing the tract bordered by Roosevelt, Wabash, 13th Street, and State--the food giant had bought up just about every piece of land there but 1239 S. State, the piece Mangen's dinner theater stood on. The transients from the St. James Hotel across the alley who used to help out at Tommy Gun's--one even painted the murals of Prohibition-era gangsters on the walls--had all moved away when the hotel was shuttered for demolition.
But until this call from Jewel's developer, Harlem Irving Companies, Mangen didn't know the Jewel project had gone from big to bigger. She referred the caller, Rick Filler, to her landlord, a former Chicago cop. "I seen the area coming," says Bob Sanfratello, who bought the two-story brick building for $250,000 in 1981.
It was Sanfratello who started Tommy Gun's Garage in 1987. Mangen worked there from the start, bringing clever marketing skills and dinner-theater credentials from the Dry Gulch in Schiller Park and King's Manor in Naperville. In 1989 Sanfratello sold the business to Mangen and her parents for $290,000. He collects a few thousand in rent from them each month, and with his son Bob Jr. runs Bobby McGee's tavern, the building's other commercial enterprise.
Filler met the Sanfratellos in Bobby McGee's and tried to talk them into selling their building.
The city had decided the Jewel project needed more "pedestrian-friendly" landscaping. This extra grooming was going to eat into Jewel's employee parking, but if Tommy Gun's and Bobby McGee's disappeared Jewel would gain 41 parking spaces. What's your asking price? Filler wondered, and the Sanfratellos replied carefully that Tommy Gun's had been appraised in 1998 at a little more than $1 million--a figure arrived at using the industry standard of ten times the annual rent.
Filler left behind his business card and a promise to get back to them. Instead, a few weeks went by and then a letter arrived. It said the building would be the subject of a condemnation hearing on July 27.
The Sanfratellos say they would have sold their property to Jewel for a million dollars if Jewel had offered it. Instead, they claim, Jewel asked the city to use muscle and condemn the building, and the city's price for the property was sure to be much lower. Jewel, for its part, contends that it turned to the city only because the Sanfratellos refused to sell.
Assistant planning commissioner Ron McDermott would never say what the city was willing to pay. Whatever the price, if the building had been condemned Mangen as a lessee would have been entitled to only $20,000, far under the $350,000 she estimated it would cost her to move Tommy Gun's. The dinner theater with Roaring 20s shtick is where Mangen met her husband, Bob Lukasik, who works the floor while she supervises the kitchen. Mangen's parents, neither in good health, have their retirement money tied up in the business. And few of the employees could afford to be out of work for the time it would take to relocate. "I just don't think it's right," Mangen said. "I'm glad there's been development going on here, but not at the expense of my business."
Development became a certainty in the early 90s, when the city established the Near South Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District between Congress and 21st Street and Lake Shore Drive and State. TIFs lure businesses to blighted areas by dangling incentives. But slums don't always turn into tax generators quickly or cleanly, and that's when eminent domain can come in handy as a demolition tool. Even a longtime and profitable business like Tommy Gun's Garage can be cleared out if a bigger, richer business wants in.
"I've been fighting to get people into this area for ten and a half years," Mangen says. "There used to be rats running rampant around here and people smoking crack on the street." Today when she looks across State Street she sees neat rows of houses sprouting from what was once a field of weeds. Two blocks down State, new lofts are selling for just shy of a million dollars. Mangen can count Mayor Daley among her neighbors. And there's already a supermarket handy: Dominick's set up shop two years ago.
When the Community Development Commission met on July 27, Mangen and the Sanfratellos showed up to plead their case. Bob Sanfratello Jr. had been down this path before. Last year the city seized the building on South Prairie that housed his construction company in order to build another McCormick Place parking lot. It took a lawyer to get Sanfratello more money from the city than he'd paid to buy the property the year before. The city never did find his company another place to go, so he moved across town to 49th and Central. "I wanted to stay where I was but I couldn't afford it any more, and I was hearing horror stories about these condemnations. I got out, but with what I've lost in business, they're still killing me."
The Community Development Commission approved 11 of the 15 proposed property seizures in the Near South TIF. But Tommy Gun's Garage and Bobby McGee's got a reprieve--four more weeks of life while Jewel tried to rework its parking plan. The astonishing thing is that this week Jewel succeeded. "The site's been reconfigured and they accommodated the parking to the south of Tommy Gun's," Ron McDermott announced Tuesday. "They're not going after Tommy Gun's anymore."
"I can't believe it. I actually beat City Hall," says Mangen. "It looks now like we're safe." Victory isn't complete--Jewel informed City Hall that it can do without Mangen and the Sanfratellos' building, but it does need their parking lot. "That's kind of going to screw us up," Mangen says, "but we'll figure something out."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.