Residents: Car-centric Plan for Vienna Beef Site Doesn’t Cut the Mustard

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The meeting took place in the cafeteria of the Vienna Beef hot dog factory. Photo: Brett Ratner

Last night at a hearing on Mid-America Real Estate Group’s preliminary proposal to redevelop the Vienna Beef hotdog factory site, local residents said they don’t relish the thought of valuable riverfront land being slathered with acres of asphalt. The community meeting, served up by 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, took place at the sausage emporium, 2501 North Damen, which will be razed as part of a Chicago Department of Transportation project to reroute Elston Avenue.

The developer wants to convert this eight-acre-plus parcel at the northeast corner of the current Fullerton/Damen/Elston intersection to suburban-style big box retail and office space with 437 car parking spaces. CDOT is relocating Elston about a block east of the junction, a strategy they hope will take a bite out of the intersection’s red-hot congestion problems.

The new Elston link will likely feature buffered or protected bike lanes. Plans for the site also call for some new green space, which would provide storm water mitigation, although nowhere near enough to make up for the vast amount of non-permeable surfaces created by the multiple parking lots. As required by a local ordinance, the developer would build a short stretch of river walk just east of Damen, which could potentially include a kayak launch and a water taxi station.

Waguespack said extending the river walk all the way to Fullerton would be contingent on the acquisition of the smaller land parcel to the east of the Vienna Beef property. He said that space would work well for an “REI-type” outdoor recreation gear store. There already is an REI store at 1466 North Halsted, two miles southeast. “We want a plan that will benefit the whole community,” the alderman said. “We want to find ways to capture that space and use it in ways that haven’t been done before.”

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Mid-America’s proposal would cover most of the former Vienna Beef site with parking spaces.

The majority of those present at the small meeting were directly involved with the development. Andrew Koglin of OKW Architects and attorney Richard Klawiter from Mid-America’s law firm DLA Piper presented the proposal. Vienna Beef co-presidents Jim and Jack Bodman were there, as well as representatives of Chick-fil-A, which plans to open a 4,000 square-foot restaurant at the southeast corner of the Vienna Beef site.

Some of the approximately ten citizens who showed up for the hearing grilled the presenters about the auto-centric plan during the Q & A session. “This is continuing a bad trend,” said nearby resident Steve Lipe, a member of the Bucktown Community Organization‘s Zoning and Planning Committee. “I think you’d get a lot of support for mixed-use [development] that includes retail. You’d get a lot of value.”

Lipe noted that it’s wasteful to cover centrally located riverfront land with low-slung buildings and hundreds of parking spaces. He challenged the developers to think more creatively, and deliver a higher-density plan that includes housing. “Why no residential [in the proposal]?” he asked. “That’s the highest benefit, and it’s low impact.”

Klawiter responded that he feels the number of car spaces is not excessive. “I don’t think [the redevelopment plan] is over-parked,” he said.

Linda O’Connell, another nearby resident, also expressed dismay at the amount of land squandered on surface parking. She suggested consolidating the spaces into an underground garage. Waguespack replied that underground parking probably wouldn’t be feasible due to the site’s proximity to the river.

The alderman argued that the development would likely yield a substantial increase in tax revenue and. He also noted that, since Vienna Beef’s 250 employees will be relocated to a new facility at 1800 West Pershing in Bridgeport, no local jobs will be lost.

Besides Chick-fil-A, no other retailers have signed on, but Mid-America anticipates that a grocery store will anchor the property, and there will be several other shops and restaurants. “We expect retailers to lease up shortly,” Klawiter said.

Construction to reroute Elston is scheduled to start in June, with most of the work wrapping up by spring of 2016. The developer is getting a late start on the planning and approval process for the shopping center and will need to play catch-up in order to start building by early 2016, Klawiter said.

Another community meeting on the Elston reconfiguration will take place on Wednesday, May 27. Details will soon be posted on the Ward 32 website.

  • Dan

    “approximately ten citizens who showed up” – apparently this isn’t in anyone’s backyard

    “The new Elston link will likely feature buffered or protected bike lanes.” – Focus should be on making sure these are PBLs.

    “As required by a local ordinance, the developer would build a short stretch of river walk just east of Damen, which could potentially include a kayak launch and a water taxi station.” – the way to protect the river is to get aldermen to proactively take a look at beefing this up for future projects. A lot has changed since 2005.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Ok. You hate big box complexes. But don’t forget to factor in that the city needs businesses that generate sales taxes and the big box complexes do that very well. If you have a city who’s bond rating is in the toilet and it does not allow commerce to flow, pretty soon you’ll have businesses that will not locate here at all.

    Sure you can point to other more logical sites where big box stores should prevail, but if that property is not on the market or if it may take years to accumulate a large enough parcel to build big box, saying they could build somewhere else is not a true statement unless the city is going to go in a condemn property in the location you would find big box palatable.

  • Pat

    Retail will always follow the people. Evidenced by Target and Walmart aggressively testing smaller format stores.

    Why is this site unsuitable for a residential component? Having a built in customer base would should be dream for a retailer, especially a grocery store. I could not tell you that the precise trade-off in terms of sales tax vs. real estate tax, but dense residential also adds to the coffers. Also, think of all the new residents and the spending power they bring. Does this complex add value or merely cannibalize other businesses? There is a lot to take into account here and there is certainly room to compromise.

    Being close to a highway is not my ideal place, but many people value that proximity. A Metra station a mile away my be prohibitive for some, but isn’t terrible.

  • DR

    “But don’t forget to factor in that the city needs businesses that
    generate sales taxes and the big box complexes do that very well.”

    I think this is an instinctual idea – they’re big, they sell things, etc. – but it’s wrong. Big Box stores are in fact remarkably bad at producing tax revenue.

    (Some BG, if you want it > http://www.planetizen.com/node/53922)

    This is a centrally located piece of waterfront property in a wealthy area. It has huge potential value. That Chicago is having financial problems is even more reason to insist that our prime pieces of property are developed in ways that maximize revenue for the city.

    Your argument that we need to consider the generation of sales tax is a potent argument against the development as proposed. Undeveloped land parcels near the city center are probably our most valuable unrealized assets (for both community value and taxing value), and our only means for ensuring they perform in the long term is community participation in planning, and the rejection of irresponsible development like the one planned.

    We all grumble about the parking meter deal, but then make comparably bad 100 year deals with developers seeking the easiest, most riskless, highest ratio return on investment for extremely valuable property which we have a degree of control over.

  • Savoy

    Build up, not out. Here, I spent 15 minutes and made something better. At least I think it is.

  • Mixed-use developments are much more recession-proof and generate far more tax income. Why would one tenant on the entire area (well, except the parking lots) earn more than six businesses, twenty apartments, and fifteen professional offices?

    Big boxes are prone to going empty, and then you have a huge building that is almost impossible to reuse, even for another big-box style business. Storefronts and reasonable-sized retail (or modularly-built retail that can be subdivided or joined), plus smaller offices and residential, is far more resilient, economically.

  • Even better if the driveway didn’t have its own stoplight, cutting the segment of new-Elston in half (when the problem new-Elston is solving is tiny spacing between lights on a heavily used street).

  • BlueFairlane

    This is a centrally located piece of waterfront property in a wealthy area.

    A wealthy area? I don’t get that. Here is an example of the only residential property I know of anywhere near there. This doesn’t suggest wealth to me …

  • DR

    I don’t see your link, but frankly I don’t need to.

    Not a wealthy area? The intersection is sandwiched between 4 census tracts, 8322, 8309, 707, and 8323, which have an average median household income of $96,756. That’s more than just kind of wealthy, that’s very, very wealthy.

    Additionally, it’s one of the few thoroughfares between Lincoln Park/the northside and Bucktown/the northwestside, with nearby freeway access to boot. It’s being redeveloped because of the extraordinarily high pass-by traffic it gets from some of the wealthiest areas of the city.

    Maybe the few residential properties right next door aren’t mansions, but this is an area of huge value.

  • BlueFairlane

    And that’s where depending on maps and data to get a feel for a place can bite you. Take a ride through here and look at this spot, then keep riding to see where the people in your four census tracts actually live. You’ll see that the people with the median household income of $96,756 are separated from this property by some pretty significant geographic barriers, specifically a river, an interstate highway and parallel railroad, and a bunch of pre-existing big box stores and warehouses.

    Meanwhile, what all these discussions are forgetting is that the very project that makes this property available is little more than an overcomplicated, suburn-style collection of (briefly) four-lane roads full of people who, if the thing works as planned, will drive through here very fast. The entire project from the start was designed to suburbanize this intersection. I don’t understand the complaints. This should have been expected.

    Also, if you’re interested, here’s the picture I was trying to post … http://www.ipernity.com/doc/285533/37343090

  • Dude, I grew up at North and Clybourn back when “no one would want to live there” (well, nobody white, anyway, and the middle-class black families living there multigenerationally didn’t count to RANCH Triangle or the alderman). When the head of residential-desire steam builds up, as it is lately — because, among other things, of high-end North Side neighborhoods cutting down and cutting down the number of housing units they contain — the wealthy areas move outwards and eat and upgrade outlying land.

    This plot is a very convenient bike ride from Logan Square, DePaul, and a bunch of other areas, and quite a convenient drive to almost anywhere. Lots of people are going to want to live here.

    If the rents were low enough, people who WORK in this area would be more than happy to live a short distance from the malls they work in — that’s what affordable housing set-asides are for.

    Within the next twenty years, the first 5 miles or so of the North Branch are going to have continuous riverside trails. This property can either be showing those trails loading docks, or be capitalizing on them.

  • dr

    I hear you, and I understand where you’re coming from.

    For the record, I’ve lived on all 3 sides of the intersection and know the area quite well in person. In fact, I play tennis at midtown weekly.

    You’re point is not invalid, but it misses the greater importance of proximity – to wealth and to the city center. If memory serves correctly, there was once another area with some less than perfect housing nearby. How quickly has Cabrini-Green faded from memory? How much investment has that area seen? The current reality of this intersection is not its destiny, and now is the time to aspire to a better city, rather than settle for another mediocre 100 years.

  • Pat

    Lister (1 block in from Elston) looks pretty nice to me…

    https://goo.gl/maps/QiHPe

  • As areas become more auto-oriented they become more economically inefficient. The cost to maintain infrastructure in auto-first areas puts a huge drag on any ancillary benefits of development. Plus, you lose all the network benefits of people living close together; the creative “soup” that spurs new businesses. It’s no coincidence that as Silicon Valley became a holding area for large, established tech companies and their sprawled campuses, innovation fled to San Francisco.

    The most economically vibrant, tax-positive areas of the city are the densest.

  • Another exemplar to offer folks who are terrified at the thought of a non-mall or mixed-used development, that won’t necessarily need to kill its walk-into-ability, is the Addison Mall, with the Target in it, at Sacramento. I have driven there (it’s easy to pull in and park in the structure behind Target), and I have walked there, and both are quite convenient. The parking is mostly joint among all the stores, so a heavy day at one doesn’t mean its shoppers can’t park. And the structure provides overflow for all the stores, evne if it’s a bit further of a walk — better a walk to the structure than circling endlessly for no spots.

    THere are ways to put in structures with parking that don’t put the parking front and center and isolate the ubildings in a sea of asphalt.

    (And then putting storeys on top of the retail would double or triple the potential revenues, but that’s just crazy urbanism on my part, I’m sure).

  • Dan

    Alderman Waguespack is already on record that the area is not well suited to high rise development, as it will add more car commuters that will worsen the rush hour peak congestion: (Lathrop Homes plan dissent).http://ward32.org/featured-new

    If you could get an all seasons water taxi on the river (not sure if feasible) and get the time down to ~30/35 minutes (it’s 25 from the North end of Goose Island today), then you’ve got something.

  • Dan

    Far more egregious in my view is the new Lake View Whole Foods. Again people, pick your battles.

    https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20150512/lakeview/whole-food-vote-delayed-after-neighbors-say-concerns-not-addressed

    This is prime land, 0.3 miles from the Paulina brown line and well suited to building at LEAST 7 stories.

    Whole Foods scrapped the former Target plan to add apartments on top of the store and now that has been totally forgotten as the owners of million dollar SFHs on the adjacent street are the only ones driving the dissent against the current plan.

    Previously discussed in this thread:

    http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/04/16/like-tod-ordinance-less-restrictive-zoning-can-help-lakeview-businesses/

  • Cameron Puetz

    The challenge with this property is that it’s an island. The Kennedy and Metra tracks isolate it from the more vibrant commercial strips of Bucktown further south on Damen and Logan Square further west on Fullerton, while the river isolates it from Lincoln Park further east on Fullerton. It’s near several vibrant areas, but not a part of any of them. If the road redesign had included and pedestrian improvements to the expressway crossing, this corner might have had a chance.

  • Katja

    Yo, just because someone wants to paint a sideways Lithuanian flag on their porch (yes I know it’s probably someone else’s, but when I see those colors I think Lietuva), doesn’t mean they’re not wealthy.

  • Point of fact: that particular house is currently for sale for more than $300,000 dollars, which while not the 1.5M that some of the houses on the east side of the river are worth, is hardly “cheap” by all-Chicago standards.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Not being in anyone’s backyard is the problem with this site. It’s close to several vibrant neighborhoods, but because of the way it’s sandwiched between the river and the expressway it’s not connected to any of them.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The site is surrounded by very wealthy censuses tracks, but cut off from all of them by either the river or the expressway.

  • cjlane

    ” a car dealership, and those are a sure sign of zero land value.”

    So the enormous car dealership being completed just across Damen from this site would imply that this site has barely more than zero land value, right?

  • Fred

    Doesn’t being surrounded on all sides by wealth make it perfectly suited to be developed in a way that breeds wealth? If there are ever ideal conditions for a property to be successfully converted, aren’t these it?

    I lived just south of here at Lister/Damen for a year, and commuting was easy. I walked down Damen to Milwaukee and got on a 56 bus. I was in the west loop in 45 minutes including almost a mile walk. You could also hop on a Fullerton bus and be on the red line in similar amount of time. I know cta connections are dreaded, but its actually not too bad from here during rush hour.

  • neroden

    Even with this amount of parking, this is an extraordinarily bad site plan. It would be quite possible to put the buildings up next to the sidewalk and put a consolidated parking lot behind them. It would also be possible to fill the smaller block with buildings and put all the parking across the street. Either (or both) would allow for a *more efficiently designed* parking lot. Rather than *three separate* parking lots.

  • DR

    You are not wrong, but no one is saying this is a peachy area at the moment – what we’re suggesting is that it’s future can be brighter.

    The absolute value of the area, considering the surrounding area, and it’s proximity to downtown, is extremely high, even considering it’s major boundaries. It’s currently depressed by past development decisions, and its history as an industrial corridor. We stand at a crossroads: we can cede our centrally located riverfront property to one of the worst development forms for urban areas, or we can push for a better solution, in order to stop the sprawl of shitty stripmalling within the city. That this location abuts some awful development is even more reason to create a dense urban block to stop the spread of awful development, and to create a residential population with an interest in maintaining and improving the area.

    How do I know that this area can support better development? As other commenters have pointed out, Lister actually already has significant residential housing, and it’s in a more marginalized position.

    Additionally, I would ask you to consider this: putting housing and dense development in the less desirable liminal spaces of wealthy areas is a huge social and urban win. It allows for more affordable market rate housing, creating socioeconomic diversity and access to better amenities for people who might not otherwise be able to afford the area, and can act as a counterbalance to downzoning and down-conversions.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The problem with putting a better development here is that it’s still an island. The development is a natural reaction to the streets being built as part of the intersection reconfiguration. For a pedestrian development to succeed here, the streets have to support pedestrian traffic. With all of the streets swelling to four lanes and no bike or pedestrian improvements to encourage non-motorized traffic to cross the highway this area set up for a pedestrian focused development to fail. The intersection redesign was a missed opportunity to improve the area. However since pedestrians and cyclists were an afterthought in the street design, they’re now an after thought in the development design. No developer is going to step and and lose money to fix CDOT’s mistake.

  • DR

    Improved bike and pedestrian accommodations was actually one of the core tenets of the redesign: (see project overview: http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/cdot/supp_info/damen-elston-fullertonintersectionimprovement.html).

    More importantly, you’re ignoring one of the fundamental realities of the “island”: it already supports a relatively significant residential presence. The desirability and functionality of the “island” for residential use has already been proven.

    What developer appetite exists for a different development mode has not been tested at this site. BIgbox (or mid-box, as this realliy is) developments are a relatively riskless business model for developers, and so long as an area permits them, they will be pursued; this does not preclude the workability of a different plan.

    Also, just because we are on streetsblog, doesn’t mean the development has to be pedestrian oriented. I would prefer 100 units with 1 parking spot each, to the existing plan. I’m more interested in a human/city-oriented development than a pedestrian-oriented development. Right now this a developer/corporation-oriented development.

    You’re making a self-defeating assumption that a urban development isn’t workable, and there are is no evidence at this point to suggest that is true. You’re preemptively kowtowing to a suburban model.

    This is a negotiation, and our first offer as a community should be for the highest tax-paying, most human-oriented development possible. If the developer won’t step-up, let them make a counter-offer. Why should we fold before the negotiation even begins?

  • Developers like single-story big box and midbox because they can build it cheap, sell it fast, and move on to some other project.

    Companies like Walgreens hate building multi-use multi-story buildings (they’d rather an island in an exclusive sea of parking) because they really, really don’t want to be landlords, or have to deal with anyone else’s use of the building in five years’ time.

    Both these strategies are perfectly rational, from the company’s/developer’s point of view, but they are also deeply damaging in their effects on the urban fabric and everyone else using the space.

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