What shaped up last fall as a pitched battle for the soul of Six Corners in Portage Park hasn’t quite turned out that way. Progress has gotten an aldermanic green light, so developments on two large pieces of the commercial nexus are moving forward.
In a ward with deep political divisions, not everybody is happy, and plenty will try to frame the situation to their advantage. But the projects to come certainly are improvements over what Six Corners has now — an empty Sears store and across it on Irving Park Road a hole in the ground that dates from 2016. They are open sores for what used to tout itself as the busiest Chicago retail district outside of downtown.
Ald. James Gardiner (45th) last week voiced his support for what would fill the hole — a senior housing development with retail space anchored by an Aldi. That followed by a few weeks his backing of a redo for the old Sears, turning it into apartments and retail space and, importantly, demolishing the old Sears Auto Center on Cicero and replacing it with 288 new housing units plus some townhomes.
Last October, Gardiner explained to me his rationale for blocking the senior project. It was too tall and didn’t have enough parking, he said.
So what changed his mind? The 10-story height and the 220 parking spaces are the same. His opponents on social media are using that to say the first-term alderman was no match for crafty real estate types.
Gardiner said the criticism is just politics and that he won significant concessions from the developers, Ryan Cos. U.S. and Clark Street Real Estate. They increased the number of independent living units to 114 from 101 and cut the allotment of higher-profit assisted living units to 98 from 114. They also bumped up the number of units deemed “affordable” under city rules to 11 from 10, although Gardiner said the project had zero affordable units when he was elected a year ago.
“I’ve had to deal with this from day one. I have no idea why my predecessor took so long and never got this going,” Gardiner said, referring to John Arena. Gardiner beat him in part because of an affordable housing project Arena backed in Jefferson Park.
Dan Walsh, senior vice president at Ryan, said the changes Gardiner sought were costly. “We had to go back to our investors. We had to stretch,” he said. For the first year of the project, veterans who enroll in the senior housing will get a $4,000 initiation fee waived, Gardiner said. The developers also are providing $100,000 in scholarships for Schurz High School students.
The hole at Six Corners also drew attention from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who showed her annoyance with Gardiner last year, saying he “overstates his ability” to block the project. Was there City Hall pressure to cave to the developers?
Not at all, Gardiner said. “We took [the mayor] out here a few weeks ago. She is supportive. When she found out everything that I was fighting for, she agreed,” he said. There was no comment from the mayor’s office.
When he blocked the development last year, it created a backlash apparent in a public protest at Six Corners and a letter-writing campaign to City Hall. The anti-Gardiner crowd asserts the pressure worked.
“It’s a 10-story building that Gardiner vetoed and a 10-story building that Gardiner approved,” said Ellen Hill, an organizer of the protest.
She is running against Gardiner for Democratic ward committeeperson in the March 17 election. It’s her right to do so, but it also emphasizes the political overtones in the development fight.
Gardiner could get the last laugh. He’ll get to take credit at multiple ribbon cuttings, assuming the zoning approvals go through. The Aldi could be open in November 2021 and the senior housing in late 2022. Figure on the Sears work going to 2023, in time for the next aldermanic election.
It adds up to $330 million worth of private investment that will enrich the tax base, create jobs and provide new business for retailers and property owners who held out through the bad times at Six Corners.
Portage Park residents can count their blessings, whatever their politics. Many Chicago neighborhoods wait much longer to get much less.