A high school, mixed-housing and a casino.
Those were among the ideas some had to replace the old Brach’s candy factory at 401 N. Cicero. None of those ideas, however, are part of the site’s future. The recent announcement by the site’s owners to tear down the factory and build a multi-use industrial building has drawn mixed reaction from community members.
“A travesty,” is how one resident, who asked not to be named, described the announcement.
“We have no comprehensive public high school in Austin and as a result, people are leaving the community,” the resident said. “If a school was built on that property, it could employ upwards of 300 people. This decision just does not hurt Austin from a community development standpoint, but also from an economic standpoint.”
Others have a different view.
“As long as the developers are committed to the community, any development is a good thing,” said state Rep. LaShawn Ford, who was among community members touting the site for a high school campus.
While the site is ideal for a school, the proposed development could spur economic activity in Austin, Ford said.
ML Realty Partners, which owns the former Brach’s plant and surrounding buildings, will begin demolishing the site this fall. The Itasca-based firm plans to build a roughly 500,000-square-foot commercial building. The plan, according to the firm, is to employ Austin residents and attract interested investors.
“Our goal is to make the property more attractive to prospective tenants,” according to a media statement provided to AWN from the company. “In the future, we intend to construct a commercial building on the property that will create jobs and generate tax revenue. And now is the right time for this work because, as the economy continues to improve, there will be greater demand for such prime commercial property in the city of Chicago.”
The city provided $10.6 million in tax increment financing to ML Realty toward the project. The entire Brach’s site—roughly two million square feet covering 32 acres of land—is zoned for industrial use. The city would have to rezone the site for other uses, including residential.
If housing were an option, Ford stressed that economic conditions would need to right to attract high-quality tenants. “That occurs when they feel that the economy has indeed improved and that they have access to schools and businesses willing to hire,” he said.
It was Austin Weekly News columnist Arlene Jones who pushed for turning the site into a casino/entertainment complex.
“That Entertainment District would consist of a casino, hotel, water park, music clubs… restaurants, bowling alley, roller skating rink, auditorium and 24-hour shopping mall, just for starters,” she wrote in a June 2006 column.
It was also around that time when some community activists started advocating for a “state-of-the-art” high school built there.
Morris Reed, CEO of the Westside Health Authority, said he’s happy that the site is finally being bulldozed after 10 years as an “eyesore and a safety hazard.” But Reed believes a college-preparatory high school would’ve been a better use for the land.
“Right now, the only real high school available for the children of Austin is Michele Clark High School, which is actually in south Austin,” he said.
The Austin High School Campus at 231 N. Pine has actually been home to several small high schools since the mid-2000s. Austin Career Education Academy, a charter high school, has been around since 1999, and Christ the King Jesuit Academy, a college-prep high school, opened in 2008.
Still, Reed insists that Austin is unable to attract young, working-class homeowners due to the lack of neighborhood schools.
“Honestly, why would a family choose to move to Austin when there is a lack of accessible schooling? Consequently, many West Siders are choosing to go to Forest Park, which has better schooling and can attract businesses to reinvest in the area,” he said.
In 2008, members of the Austin Community Education Network and Westside Health Authority put forth their own proposal for a new comprehensive high school—featuring athletic fields, outdoor gardens and several campus buildings. Despite some community rumbling, that proposal went no where.
ML Realty acquired the Brach’s property in 2008, the sales price at the time listed as $10.5 million. The Cook County Recorder of Deeds website, however, has no information stating whether it was acquired through a direct sale.
The firm is currently doing asbestos work in prep of the demolition, which is expected to wrap up next spring. The city had threatened to scrap the TIF deal with ML Realty due to the lack of work done at the site. Originally set to expire this past May, the city extended the subsidy through November at the firm’s request.
The first ever Brach’s site—a small storefront candy shop—opened on North Avenue in 1904 by founder Emil Brach (he named his store Brach’s Palace of Sweets). After two years, the growing business moved to another, larger West Side location. Four more moves occurred over the next dozen or so years as company continued to grow. Brach’s Candy built the Cicero and Lake complex in 1923 and remained there till 2004, though its parent company was bought and sold several times since the 1960s.
By 2002, the company began moving its candy operations to Argentina. By 2004, the once mighty Chicago candy maker closed its Austin plant for good. At its height, the factory employed thousands of workers. Towards its closing, the factory had a workforce of only a few hundred.
The only action there since was an office building blown to bits in 2007 for a scene in The Dark Knight.
“We still need a school in the community,” Ford said, now touting a stretch of land near Washington and Central were several recently-demolished homes once stood. “Perhaps we can look at this location as the next best option to make that happen.”
Terry Dean contributed to this story.