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Chicago Avenue keeps ‘untapped’ feeling in West Town

Chicago Avenue at sundown

Chicago Avenue has avoided what many successful neighborhood commercial corridors struggle with: an influx of big-box stores. | Alisa Hauser/For the Sun-Times

There is no Starbucks or Trader Joe’s along the 1.6-mile stretch of Chicago Avenue that serves as the main corridor for the West Town enclaves Noble Square, Ukrainian Village and East Village.

But there are several independently owned coffee shops, a Polish deli, a Ukrainian bakery, a Western wear retailer, vintage boutiques, galleries, a microbrewery, and most recently Beatnik, a bohemian-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar.

At Beatnik, which opened in September and replaced Mecca Fashions, a discount clothing store near the corner of Chicago and Ashland avenues, patrons sip $11 absinthe slushies in a lush, plant-filled indoor courtyard.

Beatnik’s neighbor is Loop Tavern, a liquor store/bar hybrid that advertises $2 shots on its marquee.

The mainstay watering hole was packed with regulars at 3 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. “You’ve got to go with it. Me, I just have to adapt. I’m not afraid,” said Steve Kontos, manager of Loop Tavern, when asked about the changing neighborhood.

Frequented mostly by Polish and Spanish customers when his father started Loop Tavern in 1988, Kontos says adapting means welcoming new faces, the millennials and the hipsters who come in mostly on weekend nights before or after going to Beatnik.

Beatnik owner Daniel Alonso, a resident of Wicker Park for almost 20 years, said his firm Bonhomme Hospitality demonstrates “a pioneering spirit” when venturing into up-and-coming neighborhoods.

“I hope to see Chicago Avenue develop the way Wicker Park developed during the 1990s, with lots of great independent galleries, retail stores and hospitality venues,” Alonso said.

Chicago Avenue has avoided what many successful neighborhood commercial corridors struggle with: an influx of big-box stores.

“It has remained a corridor mainly full of independent small businesses,” said Kara Salgado, executive director of the West Town Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the long-running West Fest.

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Earlier this year, Chris Hunt, owner of Seek Vintage at 1433 W. Chicago Ave., combated a rent increase by moving to a new storefront directly across the street from the one he had been renting since 2011.

“Chicago Avenue is unique because it has that sort of untapped feeling. People and businesses can sense a change coming, and I think we’ve had that feeling for a while, but it’s actually flipping now and I hope it’s flipping for the better,” Hunt said.

Rising rent compelled Annette Sollars to leave Wicker Park in 2015 after 21 years and relocate her eye wear shop, Eye Want, to 1726 W. Chicago Ave.

Since her rent is significantly less on Chicago Avenue, Sollars recently expanded into an adjacent storefront and open an “Eyepothecary” focused on custom-made prescribed compression garments known as “Healthwear” for people recovering from surgeries.

This fall, East Village staple Hoosier Mama Pie Co. also expanded and took over a neighboring storefront at 1618 W. Chicago Ave., going “from tiny to small,” as pie chef Paula Haney’s husband and Hoosier Mama co-owner Craig Siegelin put it.

Chicago Avenue’s allure also drew in India Shannon, owner of housewares shop Apartment 528, which relocated last year from Humboldt Park to 2136 W. Chicago Ave.

“I’m in love with Ukrainian Village, it’s not too young, not too old, not too crazy, and there’s lots of fun things to do. Really, it’s the perfect neighborhood,” Shannon said.

Shannon said that while Ukrainian Village feels much more gentrified than Humboldt Park, she’s learning that gentrification is something people [in Ukrainian Village] still talk about.

“They don’t think it has happened yet. The people who live here talk about it still ‘coming up.’ We have an older Ukrainian woman that comes in and sits in the store and gives me business advice and ideas. I love that, it’s so sweet,” said Shannon, who is African-American.

In the past decade, new apartments and offices like The Annex at 1620 W. Chicago Ave. have revitalized vintage buildings and attracted young professionals who want to live in a place with character that’s also close to downtown.

Elia Alcala outside Alcala’s, a third-generation family-owned store selling Western wear and boots.

Elia Alcala outside Alcala’s, a third-generation family-owned store selling Western wear and boots. | Alisa Hauser/For the Sun-Times

Developers Chad Tepley and Robert Sekula recently opened the Eckhardt Lofts above the shuttered Rothschild Liquor Mart at 1532 W. Chicago Ave.

The Eckhart Lofts’ eight, one-bedroom units range in rent from $1,695 to $1,990 monthly. The apartments were snapped up within a few weeks, Tepley said.

In the coming months, Tepley said a new, locally owned coffee concept will replace the former Rothschild Liquor Mart on the ground-level of the Eckhardt Lofts, which are named for saloon keeper/alderman Nicholas “Nick” Eckhardt, who in 1867 built the building which bears his last name on the facade.

Elsewhere on Chicago Avenue, Tepley and Sekula are in the midst of renovating two more vintage buildings into residences and retail, with a goal of adding 21 apartments to the corridor by the summer.

“The Chicago Avenue strip is blowing up right now. We feel very confident in Chicago Avenue,” Tepley said.

In addition to old buildings being renovated, vacant lots have been replaced with new mixed-use buildings offering apartments and condominiums, bringing new residents to support the business district.

Ardy S. Taveerasert, aka Mr. Ping Pong,

Ardy S. Taveerasert, aka Mr. Ping Pong, says he’s had two rent increases and just signed on for another five years at 1647 W. Chicago Ave. | Alisa Hauser/For the Sun-Times

Last summer, developer Fifield Cos. opened a new, 59-unit apartment building, Luxe, at 1838 W. Chicago Ave., on a former empty lot.

The pet-friendly building features a rooftop dog run. Luxe rents start at $1,575 a month for a studio.

Andrea Miller, with Miller Chicago Real Estate, brought on three retail anchors to join Luxe  —  a dentist, a chiropractor and an Edible Arrangements franchise, which will open in the spring and offer a juice bar as well as catered fruit arrangements.
Noting the day care on the ground floor, Miller said, Luxe offers amenities comparable to Wicker Park and the West Loop.

“It’s for a renter who is looking for convenience and who doesn’t want a third-floor vintage walkup. The CTA No 66. Chicago bus line goes directly Downtown, so it’s convenient for commuters,” Miller said.

For commercial tenants, Miller said, Chicago Avenue is “a bargain” compared to renting in Wicker Park, the nearest neighborhood to the north, paying about half the price per square foot.

Alonso, the Beatnik owner, predicts Chicago Avenue and nearby residential streets “are only going to get better and better.” Hunt, the owner of Seek Vintage, hopes the corridor can stave off an encroachment of out-of-state chains.

“I wouldn’t want my friends and other business neighbors to get pushed out by higher rent for chain-style stores to come in. It’s cool that a place like the Loop Tavern is right next to Beatnik, one of the hottest restaurants in Chicago. I like the juxtaposition, and I hope that doesn’t go away,” Hunt said.

A mural by Dutch artist EELCO above Truborn Gallery, 1741 W. Chicago Ave.

A mural by Dutch artist EELCO above Truborn Gallery, 1741 W. Chicago Ave. | Alisa Hauser/For the Sun-Times