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

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.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 9.24.24 AM-thumb
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.

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