North Side land sale sweetens the deal for Vienna Beef, Burke law client

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Vienna Beef moved its factory to Bridgeport but still maintains offices and a company store at 2501 N. Damen Ave. in Chicago. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Vienna Beef will pay $765,000 for a sliver of city-owned land near a reconfigured North Side intersection adjacent to the company’s former headquarters, thanks to a land sale authorized Thursday to remove an impediment to commercial development.

The name of Ald. Edward Burke (14th) was never mentioned during a surprisingly lengthy debate before the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate. But Burke’s presence loomed large over the proceedings.

The Chicago Sun-Times Watchdogs reported Sunday that, nine months after Burke led the City Council in approving a nearly $5 million tax deal for Vienna Beef to buy a vacant factory in Bridgeport in 2013, Burke’s law firm got Vienna Beef as a client.

The Chicago company hired Klafter & Burke to push for property tax cuts on the Bridgeport site, where it moved after the city acquired its headquarters at 2501 N. Damen. The city paid $5.7 million for land they needed to untangle the traffic nightmare at the intersection of Damen, Elston and Fullerton.

A bird’s-eye view of the final configuration of the Damen/Elston/Fullerton reconstruction project. | Chicago Department of Transportation

A bird’s-eye view of the final configuration of the Damen/Elston/Fullerton reconstruction project. | Chicago Department of Transportation

And Burke’s firm got results. Vienna’s property taxes were slashed by an average of 70 percent over the next two years, with Burke’s firm arguing to Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios and the Cook County Board of Review that cuts were merited because the factory wasn’t operating while renovations were underway.

That saved Chicago’s biggest hot dog maker $308,460, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.

On top of that, records show Burke’s firm won a refund of $135,602 of property taxes Vienna had paid when it bought the factory at 1000 W. Pershing Rd., where Sara Lee Corp. used to make Best’s kosher hot dogs.

Although it has shifted its factory to the South Side, Vienna Beef still has offices and a retail store on the North Side.

Tom Pierce, vice-president of development for Vienna Beef, after Thursday’s meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate. Alderman agreed to sell the company a sliver of city-owned land adjacent to a reconfigured North Side intersect

Tom Pierce, vice-president of development for Vienna Beef, after Thursday’s meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate. Alderman agreed to sell the company a sliver of city-owned land adjacent to a reconfigured North Side intersection; the city’s ownership of the land had been an impediment to commercial development. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The 0.17-acre site it plans to purchase at 1880 W. Fullerton will pave the way for a commercial development that’s expected to include a Chick-Fil-A and a Panera Bread. That will make the sweeten the pot for the hot-dog maker that celebrates its 125th birthday this year.

Tom Pierce, vice-president of development for Vienna Beef, said the vacant parcel of land the company still owns on the North Side is about a block long.

“That sliver at the end that we don’t own drives potential tenants away. They get nervous because they don’t know what’s gonna happen with that end piece,” Pierce said.

“I work in that building where the deli is and the offices are upstairs. But our manufacturing plant is just this empty building that’s been sitting empty for two-and-a-half years. It’s kind of sad to walk through it. There’s no activity there. … For us to be able to make use out of that land to develop it somehow instead of leaving it vacant is really something that will help the health of the company.”

Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) cast the only “no” vote against the land sale. She argued that jamming in a commercial development — with a new traffic light right in the middle — would undermine the city’s investment in the reconfigured intersection.

“This is a really congested intersection and you guys did a really good job of redeveloping it. And now, you’re gonna put all of these curb cuts in here and in-and-outs and vehicular traffic. I just think this is counterproductive with what you originally wanted to do here,” Mell said.

“You’re putting another traffic light. More parking spaces. More in-and-outs. … This just begs for more vehicular traffic. I use this intersection quite often and, to me, this looks like it would be a nightmare.”

Bridget Stalla, a project manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation, assured Mell the city would not approve a new traffic signal that “wouldn’t work” for the area, adding: “That would screw up what we just spent $60 million on.”

Although the land sale will sweeten the deal for Vienna Beef, Stalla argued that it’s also in the city’s best interests to develop property that’s stood vacant for more than 20 years.

“This improvement, in addition to improving safety and congestion, was supposed to spur economic development,” Stalla said.

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