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Big changes coming to Little Village Plaza, new owner says

John Novak, president and founder of Novak Construction, bought the plaza for $17.5 million in December. He said the Discount Mall might not be “the best use of the property.”

A sign for Little Village Plaza
The new owner of Little Village Plaza wants to bring in national tenants like Target or grocery stores that cater to Latinos.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The new owner of Little Village Plaza says he wants to bring in more national retailers to the six-acre South Lawndale shopping center and potentially close the Discount Mall, a well-known mini mall with more than 100 vendors that’s been in the neighborhood for 29 years.

“We build a lot, and we own some retail space. We thought it might be time to add value to the mall there. I don’t know that it’s the best use of the property,” said John Novak, president of Novak Construction, a general contractor based in Avondale.

Novak finalized its purchase of the plaza at 3045-3117 W. 26th St. for $17.5 million in early February. Novak also took over a $9.6 million mortgage on the property, according to a sales agreement reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The seasoned developer said he doesn’t want to “[change] the demographics” of the plaza’s customers or come in and “knock it all down” anytime soon, but he does want to bring in “more recognized national tenants” like Target or grocery stores that cater to Latinos.

Novak Construction has a long client list of big-box retailers like Aldi, Costco, Kohl’s, REI and Walmart, according to the company’s website.

Aside from the Discount Mall, the plaza’s current tenants include a Walgreens, a bakery, a pizza parlor, a laundromat and a health clinic run by St. Anthony Hospital. Novak said he would honor all current leases and would keep tenants informed of any potential changes.

“This is going to be at least a couple years in the making,” he said.

The Discount Mall at Little Village Plaza has served as a business incubator for first-time entrepreneurs for nearly 30 years. Its future is uncertain as new owners plan to redevelop the property.
The Discount Mall at Little Village Plaza has served as a business incubator for first-time entrepreneurs for nearly 30 years. Its future is uncertain as new owners plan to redevelop the property.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Little Village Plaza is a stone’s throw away from the neighborhood’s famous pink terra cotta arch and a few blocks west of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. Its centerpiece is the Discount Mall, which opened in 1991 inside the skeleton of an Ames department store.

For three decades, the Discount Mall served as a business incubator for first-time entrepreneurs, especially Mexican immigrants. Vendors pay between $200 and a few thousand dollars in rent a week and set up shop side by side to sell things such as boots, jewelry, luggage, soccer jerseys, quinciañera dresses and statues of Catholic saints.

“If you’re a small retailer, the mall allowed you to open a business without having to spend $50,000 on a storefront,” said Shai Lothan, a real estate professional who sold Little Village Plaza to Novak. Lothan’s family had controlled the shopping center since the late 1960s.

The Discount Mall opens seven days a week and still draws large crowds from across the region, but its heyday is in the past, Lothan said. “The type of shopping that sustained it for the last 30 years doesn’t really exist moving forward.”

But for many of the vendors, the mall is still their bread and butter. “I’ve raised my family through this business. We all eat from here,” said a vendor who’s been at the mall for more than 25 years.

The vendor, who asked not to be named, said he understands the business decision to replace the Discount Mall with something more profitable but worries its closure will negatively impact the Mexican community in Little Village and beyond.

“At this point, the mall is part of the neighborhood, our culture,” the vendor said. “If this place disappears, where do we go?”

The Discount Mall at Little Village Plaza hosts more than 100 small vendors, most of whom are Mexican.
The Discount Mall at Little Village Plaza has been open since 1991 and hosts more than 100 small vendors.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), whose ward encompasses Little Village Plaza, said he hopes Novak builds a gym and other amenities at the site to attract young families to the neighborhood. “We got an LA Fitness in Brighton Park, and everyone was ecstatic,” he said.

Cardenas said he understands why vendors at the Discount Mall are concerned but admits he doesn’t see a way forward for the business as it stands. “The new owners were very frank about a lot of things. It’s not going to be status quo. It’s just not,” he said.

A few days after Novak cemented the deal for the shopping center in December, Novak Construction donated $1,500 to 12th Ward Democrats, a political party committee headed by Cardenas. The committee transferred $20,000 to Cardenas’s main war chest two weeks later.

Cardenas said he didn’t know about the donation until asked about it by the Sun-Times. “People want to donate because they want to be part of the community,” he said. “One donation won’t change what I think is best for the ward.”

Novak said the donation wasn’t a coincidence. “We’ve been supportive of pretty much any and all aldermen in the communities we go into.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.