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2 pot shops get state OK to open in River North; ruling could be ‘game-changer’ for stores opening in other neighborhoods

State regulators approved Cresco’s Labs’ proposed pot shop at 436 N. Clark and MOCA’s secondary dispensary site at 216 W. Ohio.

Customers wait outside Sunnyside, a pot dispensary in Wrigleyville.
Customers wait outside Sunnyside, a pot dispensary in Wrigleyville, in January.
Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Chicago’s first standalone recreational weed dispensaries could soon open up shop in River North after gaining approval from state regulators — but the decision to allow two shops to open so close to each other sets a precedent that could impact other neighborhoods across the city.

Adult-use dispensary licenses were issued Friday to Cresco’s Labs’ proposed pot shop at 436 N. Clark and MOCA’s secondary dispensary site at 216 W. Ohio.

The shops must now earn certificates of occupancy from the city’s Department of Buildings, but Cresco expects to receive that final approval this week.

“We are thrilled to be approved and look forward to opening Chicago’s first-ever recreational-only dispensary in River North,” said Cresco spokesman Jason Erkes. “Our Sunnyside Dispensary pop-up location will open for online orders soon and we will be providing staggered pick-up times to avoid crowds, eliminate waits and follow social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Danny Marks — co-founder and CEO of MOCA, which currently operates a dual-use dispensary in Logan Square — wouldn’t comment on when his new store will open but said there’s “extra things to consider” in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Cresco and MOCA were initially among four cannabis companies vying to open in River North, though two dropped out ahead of last month’s pivotal meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals. The battle to open in one of the city’s hottest retail districts was made especially competitive by a portion of the state legalization law that prevents new dispensaries from opening within 1,500 feet of an existing store.

Despite the fact that their locations are not that far apart, both Cresco and MOCA were cleared to open because the licenses were issued on the same day and there were no dispensaries already operating in the area when they were inspected, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Even as inspections were being conducted last week at the newly licensed shops, a source at one of the companies said it was unclear whether that rule would prevent one from opening.

Chris Slaby, an IDFPR spokesman, didn’t respond to questions about how the rule would have been interpreted if all four shops had continued to pursue licenses in River North.

PharmaCann, another Loop-based pot firm, dropped its petition to sell weed at 444 N. LaSalle prior to last month’s ZBA meeting. Asked whether PharmaCann would have continued to pursue that location if the company knew regulators would issue licenses to shops within 1,500 feet of each other, spokesman Jeremy Unruh declined to comment directly.

“I don’t want to weigh in on what my father-in-law would have termed, ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’ issues, but I am intrigued with what the IDFPR may have done in interpreting the 1,500-foot rule,” said Unruh. “That could be a game changer.”

Unruh credited the IDFPR for “developing an interpretation strategy in this particular case, that helps resolve the 1,500-foot issue in a manner accretive to the licensees, the consumers, and the state.”

The reading of the rule could encourage more pot companies to pursue locations in other prime shopping districts, even if other pot businesses are applying nearby.

Could Gold Coast be impacted?

The new precedent will likely come into play in the Gold Coast, where PharmaCann and Cresco have both applied for special-use zoning approval to open dispensaries just a few blocks apart. PharmaCann’s planned store is at 12-14 W. Maple, while Cresco is eyeing a location at 21-29 W. Division.

Last month, the Gold Coast Neighbors Association came out against both planned stores. Vern Broders, a business leader who serves as president of the Gold Coast Neighbors Association, said residents worry that a dispensary will “give rise to more crime.”

“We just don’t believe it belongs in the middle of our residential neighborhood,” Borders said.

However, opposition from the River North Residents Association didn’t prevent MOCA from earning approval from the zoning board — and ultimately winning a state license.

Mike Riordan, the association’s president, raised concerns about traffic, “unsavory clientele” and the need for round-the-clock security at MOCA’s proposed site. MOCA’s security was placed in the spotlight after more than $200,000 was taken from the firm’s existing shop in a daring burglary just days after recreational pot became legal.

During the meeting, a spokeswoman for Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said Reilly concluded the proposed address is “not a responsible location for a dispensary” based on the residents’ opposition. Meanwhile, Reilly and Riordan’s group both penned letters supporting Cresco’s proposed location.

MOCA ultimately altered its plan during a behind-the-scenes meeting with Riordan. Though Riordan said he couldn’t withdraw his group’s recommendation without consulting with the members of the association, MOCA’s petition was unanimously approved by the ZBA. One member voted down Cresco’s application.

Reilly later lashed out on Twitter: “The Mayor’s appointed ZBA just ignored overwhelming neighborhood & aldermanic opposition to a Cannabis License in River North and they awarded it anyway.”

“Enjoy those ‘reforms‘ Chicago! We have an incompetent ZBA full of connected bureaucrats,” he added.

Reilly and Riordan didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.