Wicker Park Trader Joe’s: Good Company, Wrong Location

Wicker Park Trader Joe's development meeting

Trader Joe’s real estate vice president Brandt Sharrock discussed store operations at LaSalle II Magnet School.

Neighbors of a Trader Joe’s grocery store, proposed by Smithfield Properties for the corner of Division Street and Honore Street in Wicker Park, fear that the development will harm the work they’ve put into crafting a pedestrian-friendly street lined with locally-owned businesses. The store is welcome in Wicker Park, but neighbors say that the proposed location at Division Street and Honore Street isn’t the right one.

Scott Rappe, partner at Kuklinski + Rappe Architects, spoke up at the first public meeting earlier this month at LaSalle II Magnet School, which stands across Honore from the site. Rappe has worked with the East Village Association for 17 years, and I spoke with him to learn why this might not be the right place for Trader Joe’s.

Rappe recounted how EVA, now 33 years old, was launched to address the area’s caved-in sidewalks. Rappe said, “Most of the sidewalks had vaults [underneath], and they had collapsed in many cases — holes that you could fall into,” referring to an EVA newsletter with photos from the era [PDF]. He listed several policy changes that have enhanced and maintained Division Street’s pedestrian-friendliness:

  • Changing Commercial zoning to Business zoning. “Both allow mixed use, but [commercial] is much more conducive to automobile-oriented businesses.”
  • Liquor moratoria. Rappe said part of this is an economic decision to keep rents reasonable so retail stores stay. “Liquor sales are so lucrative,” he said, and as a result, bars and liquor stores can drive up rents. “When this happens, the only companies that can afford the rents are national chains.”
  • Pedestrian Street designation. This zoning overlay keeps a neighborhood’s sidewalks safe by disallowing drive-throughs, repair shops, and new driveways, and requiring human-scaled storefronts along the sidewalk.
  • The 1611 W. Division apartment building. This tower replaced a former Pizza Hut restaurant surrounded by car parking with 99 rental units and no tenant parking. Rappe said EVA asked Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno to extend the Pedestrian Street designation to Ashland and supported Moreno’s TOD ordinance (since augmented) that allowed the building to forego tenant parking. “This was a very considered [change], to encourage density near transit in the neighborhood.”

“These are strategies that we’ve implemented to protect the character of the neighborhood and encourage development in a positive direction,” says Rappe, and now are “all… things Trader Joe’s is trying to circumvent.” The underlying Business zoning and neighborhood liquor license moratoria, as well as a state law restricting alcohol sales near a school, mean that Trader Joe’s would require a “special use” permit to sell packaged alcohol.

The Wicker Park-Bucktown Master Plan, published in 2009 and created by the WPB Special Service Area, echoes Rappe’s concerns. SSA program manager Jessica Wobbekind wrote in an email that “our Guide Development Committee has discussed this project at length and sent a letter to Alderman Moreno about their concerns.” She said the master plan “advises high density development in specific areas close to transit, to promote not only walkability but also transit use,” and that the “committee is concerned about the traffic and activity that would be generated so close to LaSalle II school by a large retail store like Trader Joe’s.”

Wobbekind pointed out that the master plan also highlights Division Street as “one of the most unique business districts in the City,” and that its “unique atmosphere should be preserved, and national chains should be encouraged to locate in other areas of the SSA where their presence would not be as disruptive as it would be on Division Street.” The master plan lists Trader Joe’s as a grocery store that would fit a specific need within the community, but Wobbekind said the plan recommends Western Avenue as a place for “big box and chain stores.”

Rappe is concerned about the precedent of allowing large retailers onto Division Street: “Once the chains get a foothold, they drive up rents.” Trader Joe’s “business model is based on generating sales from a much larger geographic area than a walkable distance,” which “often means cars” driving to the site.

Sure enough, Smithfield’s proposal includes 77 car parking spaces, which would generate additional traffic along narrow Honore and Division Streets. The current zoning requires a minimum of 23 parking spaces for a store of this size, but since Chicago doesn’t have parking maximums, Trader Joe’s can build as much parking as it wants. Neighbor Alyx Pattison asked Brandt Sharrock, real estate vice president at Trader Joe’s, if the company could build no car parking and instead “be a sustainable neighbor” with a green roof. Sharrock replied, “We’d have to look into that and get back to you.”

Sharrock described the store’s operations at the meeting, saying there would be three semi tractor trailers every day, daily fresh bread and flower deliveries, and about two smaller box truck deliveries each week. In the proposal, most of these trucks would drive north along Honore, through the neighborhood to the south and past the school’s entrance. Parents complained that the noise would disrupt learning, and that children crossing the street may be harmed by additional traffic from deliveries and patrons along a newly two-way Honore Street. Sharrock countered that the trucks would make their deliveries before the school’s drop-off period at 7 a.m.

Rappe suggested at the meeting that Smithfield and Trader Joe’s meet with community members to find a better location. Rappe later told me that local residents “don’t know [Trader Joe's] criteria” and thus can’t identify more suitable locations. He reiterated his call for a meeting: “We should have a direct conversation with Trader Joe’s, to see if we can help them find a place that meets their needs and keeps the community character.”

I suggested to Rappe that perhaps the current Wendy’s location, adjacent to the 1611 apartment building and near Ashland Avenue, might make a better location for Trader Joe’s. Rappe wasn’t sold, saying that spot should have a taller mixed-use development, and that “because of its proximity to [Blue Line] transit, we don’t want to build anything that’s going to keep residential out, and we don’t want to do anything there that encourages driving.”

Steven is a member of the SSA’s transportation committee.