Construction workers at the former Sears site on North and Harlem earlier this year. | File

Community residents who tuned into 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s Nov. 10 virtual community meeting got a few answers about Novak Construction’s plans for the former North and Harlem Sears site, but many aspects of the project remain unknown. 

The property includes the former Sears store at the northeast corner of North and Harlem avenues and its main parking lot, as well as the auxiliary parking lot directly to the east of it. 

At the time the Sears closed, the property was owned by Seritage Growth Holdings, Sears’s real estate arm. The company hired Tucker Development to redevelop the property. Tucker eventually came up with a plan for mixed-use development that would incorporate the refurbished store building and apartments on the east parking lot. 

But in September, Seritage sold the property to Chicago-based Novak Construction, which decided to demolish the Sears building completely and build a new grocery store, two retail buildings and a drive-through restaurant, while keeping the plans for the east parking lot the same. 

During the Nov. 10 meeting, Jake Paschen, Novak’s executive vice president, explained that the Chicago City Council will have to make some zoning changes before the firm can proceed with its plans for the site. He also indicated that the company won’t commit any retail components until they secure the tenants. Paschen said he expects construction to start in 2021, with the goal of finishing it up sometime in 2022. 

Tucker Development has already gutted the original Sears building, as part of the planned renovations. Once Novak took ownership, it began demolishing the building. Paschen said he thought Tucker’s plan had too much retail and too many residences. 

“Our view was that it was too much, that there wasn’t market for that much retail,” he said. “And what we’d like to do is to make a more simple plan.”

Each building would be around one story tall, as opposed to Tucker’s five. The construction schedule will depend on how soon they can secure tenants.

“Our intention is not to build spec buildings, but to try to lease them first,” Paschen said. “And that would dictate what would happen. And if, for example, the lease with grocery gets lined up [first], we’ll build that right away.”

He declined to give any specific on what potential tenants they are talking to, saying only that Novak is open to having either a national or a more regional grocery store chain come in. 

He said that the parking lot would have 262 parking spaces for all retailers. And while Tucker’s plan called for using the store’s underground parking for residents,  Paschen explained that they would fill it in using the materials from the demolished building. 

There are 10 houses located along Nordica Avenue, their back yards facing the east parking lot. When Tucker unveiled its proposal, several homeowners expressed concerns that residents of taller apartment buildings would be able to peak into their yards, as well as about the visual impact of those buildings looming over their houses. 

Homeowners from that block reiterated their concerns at the Nov. 10 meeting, leading Taliaferro to schedule a private zoom meeting between Paschen and Nordica homeowners that’s supposed to take place within two weeks.

Another point of contention with Tucker’s plan was that all residential units would be apartments rather than condos. Paschen said that the company hasn’t decided what kind of housing units those would be, but didn’t rule either one out. If those buildings do become apartments, he said, Novak will manage them. 

Resident Neal Wankoff touched on one of the smaller points of contention with Tucker’s proposal — the visual design. Paschen said that, other than aiming for something the city would approve, they don’t have any idea what the design would look like.

“Our intention is to build attractive buildings, buildings we’re proud of, but we don’t a have firm grasp of the design phase yet,” he said. 

Other aspects that Novak is still researching is the impact on traffic, how much green space the development will have and how CTA Route 72/North Avenue would be affected.

Taliaferro asked whether local businesses will be able to participate in construction. Paschen replied that his firm would be open to considering them. 

“Well, the best thing to do is to let us know who they are and what their qualifications are,” he said.

Judith Alexander, chair of The North Avenue District Inc., said she likes many aspects of the plan, including more attractive building designs and the that it wouldn’t add driveways. But she felt that the retail component could be made even more pedestrian-friendly.

“To contribute to North Avenue’s vitality and pedestrian-friendliness, it would be desirable if the commercial buildings have windows and doors facing the street, along with setbacks or colonnades, landscaping between buildings and sidewalks on Harlem, as well as North, and pedestrian-scaled lighting,” Alexander wrote. “It’s important that the project not turn its back on North Avenue (or Harlem) and participates fully in the community where it’s located.”

She also said that she would encourage Novak to add a community room that could sit about 25 to 30 people, arguing that this is something the corridor is lacking. The fact that the Starbucks at the east lot got good crowds before the pandemic, she argued, suggests demand for a space where residents could congregate.

“There are still many unknowns about this project, of course,” Alexander added. “Though we await more details, we are encouraged that Novak Construction seems open to listening and responding to community concerns. We look forward to working with them.” 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...