It was literally standing room only at Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s (29th) March 20 community meeting on the redevelopment plans for the Chicago portion of the former North/Harlem Sears site.
A little under a year after the initial proposal was unveiled during Taliaferro’s April 18, 2018 community meeting, the developers came back with an altered, more detailed vision. The plans call for turning the Sears store building into a mixed-use development, with branches of an unnamed “national grocery store” chain and “national health club” chain occupying the first floor and apartments on the floors above.
The developers are also planning to build apartments and townhomes on the parking lot north of the Bank of America building, with the buildings wrapping around a resident-only parking lot in the middle.
While the residents in attendance were intrigued by the grocery store, many were concerned about the development’s impact on parking and traffic, as well as the fact that most of the units will be rentals. Taliaferro and the developers emphasized that they would take resident feedback into account. But at the same time, they made it clear that they were on the clock — the grocery store tenant was interested in moving in as quickly as possible, so they were looking to have the Chicago Plan Commission consider the necessary zoning changes early this summer.
As previously reported, the sites are owned by Seritage, the spin-off of Sears’ real estate holdings arm. Seritage contracted Highland Park-based Tucker Development to redevelop the site and manage the buildings once they’re built. The original vision called for putting retail on the first floor, converting two floors above the stores into “loft-style” apartments and building three more floors of modern apartments on top of the building.
The updated proposal drops the number of additional floors from three to two. Overall, the building would now have 161 apartments. Company CEO Richard Tucker and his son, Aaron Tucker, the company’s chief investment officer, explained that they plan to put all the resident parking underground while leaving the above-ground parking lot for grocery store and health club customers.
The building will include its own, resident-only fitness area and an “amenity deck” on the top floor with a community room that would have a kitchen, tables and chairs. As Aaron explained, the community area would function as a gathering space and a “flex workspace.”
Tucker Development is also planning to build on the parking lot portion of the block between Neva, Wabansia, Nortica and North avenues. A total of 27 three-story townhouses will be built along the Wabansia Avenue side, and the four-story apartments that contain a total of 125 units will wrap around the remaining sides.
Tucker explained that the townhouses will each have two-car garages, while the courtyard parking lot will be used for the apartments, with one parking space per unit. Like the development to the west, the apartment buildings would have a fitness center.
The biggest concern was the parking and traffic. Several residents argued that most households owned two cars, and having only one parking spot per apartment wasn’t enough. The developers said that their studies suggest that is not the case, especially for the one-bedroom units they’re planning.
“We’re not seeing two-car [households] in those kinds of units,” Aaron Tucker said. “Maybe one car, but we think we’re over-parked.”
When asked whether the city pressured them to reduce parking to encourage people to take public transit or bike, Aaron replied that this wasn’t the case. In the end, it came down to capacity.
“We’re meeting the zoning requirement of being one-to-one,” he said. “We thought it was important we provide underground [parking]. And I promise you, we can’t fit any more in that basement. We tried.”
Tucker added that tenants who don’t use their parking spots would be free to lease them out to others.
The other major concern was about the increase of traffic along Wabansia Avenue, as more people try to avoid the frequently congested North Avenue. Tucker Development plans to work with the Illinois Department of Transportation, which controls North Avenue, to install a traffic signal at the North/Neva intersection to help relieve the issue.
Another major concern was the fact that most of the units would be rental apartments. While the developers didn’t specify what the rents were, they said that they were aiming for more high-end units. But some of the residents were still concerned, saying that they were worried that, if the apartments failed to attract tenants, Tucker Development would lower rents to get some return on their investment.
They also raised concerns about City of Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance applying to the projects. The Tuckers insisted that it doesn’t, since they are not seeking any city assistance. Furthermore, the city’s current zoning already allows residential units, so the zoning change they’re proposing wouldn’t trigger the requirement.
Chicago City Council traditionally defer to local aldermen when it comes to zoning decisions. In his newsletter and during the meeting, Taliaferro emphasized that he wouldn’t approve anything without getting resident feedback.
“I heard the comment, ‘This is a done deal, why are we meeting?’ It’s not,” Taliaferro said. “I will talk to Seritage and the developer about these concerns in hopes of building the project the community is in love with. “
At the same time, Richard Tucker said that they were hoping that the process wouldn’t be too long.
“We’re going to need to move quickly,” he said. “Our national grocer [tenant] wants to open very quickly, as quickly as we can possibly go.”
Taliaferro said that they would be having at least one more community meeting in April, as well as a private meeting with residents on Nortica Avenue and other nearby blocks. And he said that residents would ultimately have an opportunity to vote on whether he gets behind the zoning change.
“We will hold additional community meetings, but we’re going to have to have to move quickly,” Taliaferro emphasized.
Judith Alexander, chairwoman of the North Avenue District, said that she supported more residential development on the Sears site, since it would bring in more customers for North Avenue businesses and help revitalize the entire corridor.
“Though it isn’t perfect, the proposed project is certainly well-designed and a big improvement over the existing vacant building and parking lots,” she said. “Hopefully, some fine-tuning will be possible in response to input at a community meeting like the one tonight.”