Sauganash Whole Foods Is Building Parking Where There Should Be Housing

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Sauganash Place. Image: Google Maps

Sauganash Place, a mixed-use development near Peterson and Cicero avenues, is a strikingly urban element in the eponymous Chicago neighborhood, a quiet, mostly residential community on the Far Northwest Side. Featuring several stories of condominiums with balconies, plus a Whole Foods Market on the ground floor, the building wouldn’t look out of place in denser neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lakeview.

Although the supermarket already has a large underground parking garage, as well as a surface parking lot, the company recently announced it has purchased land to the north of the store — which was originally slated for more condos — in order to expand the lot. The plan is moving forward with little-to-no opposition, even though it would be much more productive to use this land for development, especially for more multi-unit housing.

The original proposal for Sauganash Place included two condo buildings with a total of 136 units, plus commercial space. The completed portion, built in 2007, includes the Whole Foods, 61 condo units, and 260 garage parking spaces in garages. Due to the housing market crash that occured shortly after that, the second building was never constructed. The site is currently a gravel lot, which Whole Foods is already using for parking.

The store’s plan to permanently convert the land to car storage was approved by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Chicago Department of Transportation, as well as 39th Ward Alderman Margaret Laurino and local community leaders. “The Alderman is satisfied that the proposal is the right fit for that location,” said John Riordan, the ward’s director of economic development and business affairs.

However, more space for people, rather than cars, would have been a much better community asset. The predominant housing type in Sauganash is single-family housing. Over 85 percent of all units in the Forest Glen community area – which includes Sauganash, Forest Glen, Edgebrook, and Wildwood — are single-family units, according to DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies. Condos and apartments located in buildings with six or more units only make up about six percent of the area’s total units.

Citywide, only about 25 percent of housing units are single-family homes. Even in other Far Northwest Side community areas, the percentage of housing units represented by single-family homes is much lower than in Forest Glen, which has one of the highest single-family home percentages of any community area.

DPD’s current housing plan, entitled “Bouncing Back: Five-Year Housing Plan” explicitly states, “People of all income levels, in all neighborhoods, should have a range of housing options.” It goes on to say “A commitment to diverse communities and…fair housing is essential to a healthy, vibrant Chicago.” Whole Foods’ plan to permanently convert valuable land to parking is in conflict with those goals.

Parking Lot Rendering (Saug. Whole Foods)
Rendering of the parking lot planned for the north side of the property.

There are few available sites for new multi-unit projects in Sauganash. By approving this parking lot, Laurino passed up an opportunity to push for a more constructive use of the land. Instead, the community is getting a project with a very narrow scope of benefits.

Whole Foods said the new parking lot will likely incorporate green technology such as solar-powered lighting and permeable pavers, and it may host a farmers market and other community events. However, it’s essentially just a place to store customers’ cars, and it doesn’t even appear that there’s any demand for the additional parking capacity. No parking study was conducted, according to Whole Foods representative Keith Stewart.

Anecdotally, my experience has been that, even when the surface lots are full, there are always plenty of spaces in the store’s large underground garage. It appears building the new lot is more about accommodating shoppers’ preference to park at street level, than any actual need for more parking. As such, it’s a highly wasteful project.

As Stewart pointed out, Whole Foods isn’t in the real estate development business. However, it is in the sustainability business. Part of the appeal of shopping at the stores is their green image. Whole Foods’ website lists “Reducing waste and consumption of non-renewable resources” as part of the company’s core values. It behooves them to think about how development and transportation fit into this mission.

Laurino’s office acknowledged that there have been other proposals to build condos on the site, but said these all fell through. However, the housing market is improving, and new housing is being built elsewhere in the neighborhood, so why did the alderman give up on trying to get condos or apartments built here?

  • JacobEPeters

    Never opposition to parking lots, yet they tend to generate more traffic than residential & don’t drive business to neighboring stores like new residents do. If I were a business across the street, I’d be a NIMBD (Not In My Business District).

  • david vartanoff

    Need to add parking lot limits to zoning.

  • Mcass777

    Can you re work your comment? I can’t seem to make any sense out of your post.

  • goes both ways

    The tone of this article suggests Whole Foods is so stupid they are wasting money on spots no one will ever park in. I have a feeling they do more than just a flip a coin to make decisions.

  • Of course people will park in them. But over, say, a five-year span, which will bring more revenue and benefits to the neighborhood: a flat parking lot that sometimes holds farmer’s markets, or a multi-story multi-use building with retail below and affordable housing above?

    The second is far more profitable. Whole Foods has decided they don’t want the overhead or bother of dealing with it, so they are choosing to lowball the land use and harm the community long-term for their own convenience.

    “A plausible use” for the land is very different from “a really good use” for the land. The parking lot will probably be marginally profitable; WF won’t lose money on it. But they won’t make hardly any, either.

  • JacobEPeters

    Does that help explain the concept better?

  • For Whole Foods, this decision made financial sense, even if it runs counter to their stated environmental goals. Their customers prefer parking at street level, even though there is already tons of underground parking, so the company is pandering to that preference.

    However, this is a bad deal for for the community. Instead of getting more housing options (and property tax revenue for our broke city), they’re getting a parking lot. Therefore, Alderman Laurino would have been wise to veto the project (by declining to sign off on new curb cuts) and hold off for a better proposal.

  • Pat

    It would be nice to see a land value taxes in certain corridors to encourage development rather than vacant lots, parking lots, and run-down buildings.

    If we can create a TIF, why not something like this?

  • planetshwoop

    We are at this site almost daily, so I’m really familiar with this store.

    First, I think think that if Whole Foods gets an attractive offer in the future for a condo development, they’d happily sell. They’re making the decision to put in a parking lot as a rational reaction to what’s there now. If “a lot of deals have fallen through” then it’s not clear that housing is a good idea right now, esp. I believe the original project had a lot of issues selling.

    Second, it’s just not an attractive site for housing. This is my $0.02 of course, but there’s massive traffic at Peterson and Cicero, and it’s on the wrong side of the intersection. If it were on the east side, it’s much easier to get to the elementary school, Sauganash Park, etc. There is no safe way to cross the expressway if you want to go to Edgebrook or points west. From watching residents you can see they struggle for a place to walk their dog since it’s sandwiched between two major roads.

    Last, the transit is spotty. The Forest Glen Metra station isn’t connected to the bus routes; there is no sidewalk to get there from the site, and Peterson bus isn’t really connected to the CTA trains.

    There is a large new development happening in Sauganash now adjacent to the trail. It will be expensive homes (not affordable unfortunately) but given their plans for the number of units there is a lot of new housing coming to Sauganash.

    And as John mentions “this is a bad deal for the community”. As a long-time 39th ward resident, I’d say that Marge specializes in those.

  • Mcass777

    yep -agreed. The stores across the street do have some lots and parking off the alleys. Minimal compared to WF.

  • Mcass777

    The Peterson bus runs from the Edgebrook Metra stop to the Red line and the 54a Cicero bus heads north stopping at the Yellow line and runs south to Montrose and Cicero where you can catch the Blue line and Metra.

  • I would be cautious about how something like that was implemented, because a similar phenomenon (implicit, not explicit) is what murdered the neighborhood I grew up in.

    I grew up living at 1647 N Clybourn (current Google street image attached). At the time, the neighborhood was just over 1/3 empty lots (casualties of the Watts era), and mostly owned by the people who lived there. If they owned the homes, overwhelmingly they owned them outright; some of the buildings were owned by slumlords who rented them out and took poor care of them.

    Then Lincoln Park started slopping ever westwards. They put in high-end yuppie row houses on Bissell,and suddenly our property tax estimates — on houses that had NOT been remodeled or sold — tripled or quadrupled.

    My mother had to spend hours of her life every several years going down to the County Building to appeal the “comparable properties” the assessor’s office was pairing our house with, all of which were recent gut-remodels with luxury finishes and million-dollar (in 1990s dollars) sale price ranges.

    Our house cost $100,000 when my mother bought it in the very early 80s, and while she’d remodeled it to “quite nice to live in,” it was in no way comparable to the ones with fancy art collections hanging on their minimalist walls over in-floor granite bathtubs three blocks away.

    My mother was one of the last “old-timers” from the neighborhood to finally decide it wasn’t worth it either to pay ridiculous property taxes or continually have to blow her life arguing the city back down.

    A multigenerational successful working-class neighborhood with serious social ties that helped bootstrap generations of black kids into success in life died in the mid-to-late 90s, killed by Daley’s privileging of luxury high-end uses over a neighborhood that worked quite well and was socially useful, not “run down” or “derelict” — even though that’s what RANCH Triangle called us.

    My neighbors repeatedly tried to buy the empty lots beside their houses from the city, to use as gardens or play spaces, but the city waited (for over twenty years) until they could sell the whole block en masse to a condo developer, who then employed high-pressure tactics on the people who owned the houses between their lots.

    Yes, the neighborhood gushes property tax revenue for the city, now. But it is still extremely sad.

  • Alex_H

    Elliott, thank you for sharing this story. Something I have always wondered about, and would be interested in your take on, is: at the end of the day, however sad it may be when a neighborhood loses its character like you describe, doesn’t it also represent some sort of financial windfall to the sellers, who presumably sold their properties for far more than they paid? To my mind, the greater tragedy is when _renters_ are forced out due to gentrification. They have fewer resources than homeowners and enjoy no financial benefit when their home is sold. Thoughts?

  • Firstly, the long-time owners rarely get a fraction of what the later developers realize (even if only minor changes are done to the building); because they are in financial hardship and have other limitations on their life, they have to accept an offer within a few months or at most a year of putting it on the market, and nobody’s buying that for single-family (a household-to-household transaction yields the highest profit for the seller, because there are fewer middlemen). The developers make a low-ball offer and it sits there, while expenses keep accruing. Eventually you hold your nose and take it, and watch them sell for double in less than a year.

    In the case of the Deal family next door to us, his final sell price (on a house that he, a 70-year-old man, had been born in, and that was owned outright by his family that whole time) only equalled about ten years of the newly ridiculous property taxes, which he’d been paying for fifteen. His property is now part of a luxury condo building, where the cheapest units are about the price he got for his whole house.

    He had to move to the southwest side, far from any useful transit (note that this neighborhood is steps from the red line and a few blocks from the brown line), and could only afford an apartment, not a three-story house with full basement. He was providing respite housing for family members, as well as renting out for income (and all his renters were also now SOL). Five generations of wealth generation, pissed down a rope so he could be elderly and barely getting by on Social Security.

    The benefit is smaller than you might think. No individuals win when gentrification proceeds in the scorched-earth method common in the 90s and continuing today, where everyone living there now is treated as disposable, or worse, part of the problem. Only the developers make any real money.

    Just as in this Whole Foods case. They buy, maybe knock down, bulldoze it flat, and sell it quickly to someone who wants to do something stupid on the land, or else build a shoddy, single-user building (like all the new Walgreens stores with their wraparound parking), so the developer can flip their money quickly. They’re not interested in building the neighborhood iteratively more economically productive, they want to strip-mine it.

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