There was a time when the Six Corners commercial district in Portage Park was a real community nexus. It was where you went for shopping big and small, for shows at the Portage Theater and for business such as medical appointments. It laid claim to being the busiest retail stretch in the city outside of downtown.
Today — not so much. The place where Irving Park Road, Cicero and Milwaukee avenues converge looks more like a patient awaiting a heart transplant. Prime sites are vacant or unused, although plenty of traffic still flows by — 70,000 cars a day by one consultant’s count. They’re just headed somewhere else for the most part.
What’s the problem? Three come to mind: First, there’s the coronavirus and its chilling effect on everything economic. It’s made it harder for even well-capitalized investors to move forward with real estate projects. Second, and maybe more important for the long term, is the identity crisis facing the retail sector. Do we need as many stores in the age of online shopping?
Finally, there’s the old bugaboo of political tensions.
Exhibit A for the ailing Six Corners is the old Sears store at the northeast corner of Irving Park and Cicero. Opened in 1938 to what Sears archives said was a crowd of almost 100,000 people, it was the retailer’s last outlet in Chicago when the store closed in 2018. It had been in the hands of Seritage Growth Properties, investor Eddie Lampert’s vehicle for making money from Sears’ real estate.
With Chicago-based Tucker Development, it cooked up a plan to convert the building to a retail arcade on the lower levels with homes above it, plus more multi-family homes next door to replace an old Sears Auto Center.
It got positive reviews from neighbors and a sign off from Portage Park’s alderman, Jim Gardiner (45th). But Seritage has been selling assets because the coronavirus has hurt its rent collections across its national portfolio. So why not sell a parcel producing zero income?
Gardiner said on social media that Seritage and Tucker sold the site to Chicago’s Novak Construction. Novak deals in big-box stores and traditional shopping plazas, not multi-use projects, so there’s concern about a change in plans.
“They haven’t come up with any plans,” said Joe Angelastri, chairman of the recently formed Six Corners Chamber of Commerce and owner of the City Newsstand coffee shop and magazine store. “We heard rumors they want to demolish the building.”
Novak executives, Seritage and Tucker did not return calls or messages last week.
Across Irving Park from the Sears is an almost four-acre hole in the ground slated to become an Aldi with senior housing attached to it. The plan by Ryan Cos. U.S. and Clark Street Real Estate got necessary approvals earlier this year. Dan Walsh, a senior vice president at Ryan, said construction was delayed slightly by economic concerns but should start in December now that debt financing is in place.
Just east of the hole is a Peoples Gas site where the utility is finishing demolition before turning the 6.5-acres over to GW Properties. Mitch Goltz, GW principal, said he’s working with the city on zoning for a 100,000-square-foot retail plaza with a food store as an anchor.
He said the plan is evolving, but there is strong interest from tenants. It’s a mistake to consider all of retail as threatened by the coronavirus, he said. “It’s a shock to the system, and everybody’s had to adapt. Some are stopping. Some are pivoting. Some are stepping on the gas,” Goltz said.
The last issue facing Six Corners is old-fashioned ward politics. Issues in the 45th Ward tend to come down to forces loyal to Gardiner opposing those who aligned with John Arena, whom Gardiner defeated in the 2019 aldermanic race. Angelastri is a Gardiner supporter whose newly formed chamber of commerce is seeking control of a special service area serving Six Corners.
These SSAs are districts in which businesses tax themselves to fund street cleaning, beautification, marketing and other projects. Many do good work throughout the city, but with contracts to let, SSAs can become playthings for aldermanic influence.
Angelastri said the established group running the SSA, the Six Corners Association, became politicized. The association’s managing director, Amie Zander, denied that and said she’s been frustrated by a lack of communication from Gardiner. The alderman was unavailable for comment last week.
Zander said she’s especially worried about the Sears site and whether a suburban-style strip mall will replace a plan that included multi-family housing, thus bringing in customers for Six Corners retailers.
Above all, the corridor needs street life. Getting it is a cause that could unite a community.