A Chicago pickleball coach is looking to set up indoor pickleball courts in the long-vacant former Walgreens store at the corner of North and Mobile avenues.

According to the application documents shared with Growing Community Media, the arrangement is temporary. McDonald’s is hoping to demolish the building and put in a restaurant with the drive-thru, which requires a Special Use permit. There has been no update on the status of the permit application, and McDonald’s did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

In the meantime, pickleball coach Johnny McKerr is applying for a license to open a four-court indoor pickleball space inside the building. According to the application, it would be available for open play and group rentals, and he would use it for coaching sessions. McKerr said that the lease hasn’t been signed yet, and he declined to comment any further until that happened. The application indicated that he hoped to open by October.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) first mentioned the pickleball courts deal during his Sept. 13 community meeting, after a constituent asked him for an update about the site. In a follow-up interview, he said that he supports McKerr’s proposal, saying that having indoor courts that would be open during the winter was “an opportunity” for the area.

Judith Alexander, chair of The North Avenue District, said that she introduced McKerr to Taliaferro. She believed that the pickleball court could help local businesses on Galewood and Oak Park sides of North Avenue. 

“We’re always in favor of businesses opening and bringing people to our district,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll stick around for a sandwich or take care of their dry cleaning, things like that.”

The parcel the Walgreens building is located partially rests on a hill. The layout allows only one entrance, at the southwest corner of the lot. The lot is next to a CTA/Pace bus turnaround. The traffic frequently backs up on the stretch of North Avenue between Narragansett and Ridgeland avenues as cars try to navigate a complicated intersection.

The Walgreens was closed in early summer of 2015. It served as a COVID-19 testing site at the height of the pandemic but has since remained vacant. It ended up in foreclosure in 2022, and it was purchased in an auction by a company which, according to the Illinois Secretary of State data, is owned by executives at Manhattan-based Tokio Marine HCC insurance company.

Troutman & Dams real estate firm has been helping the new owners lease the site. During the May 29th Ward community meeting, Eric Dams, one of the firm’s principals, indicated that McDonald’s would lease the land to open a company-operated location.

While a fast-food restaurant would be allowed on the property by right, without any extra city zoning approvals, a drive-thru always requires a Special Use permit, and the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals usually defers to local aldermen on whether to grant one. Dams said that given the current customer trends, the fast-food chain felt it made no sense to open a restaurant without a drive-thru.

When he introduced the plan during May’s 29th Ward community meeting, several residents expressed concerns about the already complicated traffic situation. Dams said he would come back to the community with the revised plan, but, according to Taliaferro, neither Dams nor McDonald’s followed up as of Sept. 20. 

According to the biography included in the license application, McKerr began playing pickleball in 2012, and he decided to become a full-time coach in 2021 after he had a heart attack. Under the Pickleball Johnny brand, he offers individual and group coaching.

 McKerr wrote that he was responding to a growing demand – something that Chicago Park District and their counterparts in many suburbs scrambled to respond to. 

“The growing popularity of pickleball has resulted in a supply and demand issue,” McKerr wrote. “There is a strong need for dedicated pickleball facilities and coaches.  There are too many players and not enough courts. More and more people are wanting to learn how to play pickleball and/or refine their current skill set.”

The lease is tentatively set to start in October and would expire on June 30, 2024, unless McDonald’s takes over the property earlier than that. The courts would be open to the public all week, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 

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...