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Sears redevelopment nearing finish line

Chicago alderman, Plan Commission sign off

June 25th, 2019 1:49 PM

Almost there: Chicago Alderman Chris Taliaferro and the Chicago Plan Commission have given thumbs-up to a proposal to redevelop the former Sears site at North and Harlem avenues. The plan awaits approval by the Chicago City Council, which could OK the project sometime in July. | Rendering courtesy of Seritage

By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

The redevelopment of the former Sears at Harlem and North Avenues is close to taking flight now that community members have weighed in and Chicago Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) has given the redevelopment proposal his formal blessing. 

During a community meeting held June 19 at Rutherford Sayre Fieldhouse in Chicago, the alderman polled the room of roughly 50 to 60 people on whether they were for or against the redevelopment proposal. Based on raised hands, attendees were roughly split down the middle. 

The vote, along with phone calls and other forms of community input from residents who live in Galewood, Oak Park, River Forest and other Elmwood Park, seemed to be enough for Taliaferro to make up his mind. The alderman ultimately recommended that the proposal receive the necessary zoning changes that the project requires to go forward. 

On June 20, the Chicago Plan Commission voted 8-1 in favor of sending the matter to the Chicago City Council's Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, which is expected to consider the zoning measures at a meeting on June 25. If the committee approves the measures, they'll be sent to the full City Council for a final vote — something that could happen next month at the earliest. 

Taliaferro is scheduled to hold two more meetings on the redevelopment proposal — one on July 3 at Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd., and one on July 17 at Rutherford Sayre Fieldhouse. 

When Sears spun off its real estate arm into Seritage Growth Properties, the new company inherited the ownership of the North and Harlem building, the surrounding parking lots and the parking lot to the east of it. After the store closed, Seritage started working with Highland Park-based Tucker Development to redevelop the site. 

Under the most recent version of the plan, the original Sears building would have branches of an unnamed "national grocery store" chain and "national health club" chain occupying the first floor, apartments on the existing second and third floors, and two more floors worth of apartments above those. 

Tucker plans to build apartments and townhomes that would wrap around a resident parking lot in the middle of the development. 

On June 19, Taliaferro said that a traffic study recommended making Neva Avenue a two-way street between Wabansia and North Avenues, installing stop signs at the entrances to the east lot, and adding a traffic signal and northbound turn lane at the intersection of Harlem and Wabansia Avenues. 

In addition, the alderman explained, under the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, Tucker Development would need to make 33 units affordable. The developer agreed to build nine affordable units on-site and pay a fee in lieu of building the remaining number of affordable units required by the ordinance.  

During the course of the June 19 meeting, opponents and proponents of the proposal reiterated similar points made during the previous meetings. Proponents argued that it would encourage development, help local businesses and would generally be a better alternative than a vacant store and the parking lot. Opponents had concerns about density, traffic and the fact that all of the units would be rental. Xadrian McCraven, who is African American and said he grew up in a public housing development, put the matter in particularly stark terms.

"My concern is that they would be Section 8 and [housing choice] voucher families," he said. "And I believe that this would create destabilization of the western part of Galewood."

Taliaferro pushed back against that sentiment, urging residents like McCraven to "stop putting that stigma on renters," the alderman said.  "I rent. And there are a lot of folks here who rent."

Some attendees were against the proposal for other reasons. Chris Abbasi, a former Taliaferro staffer, said spoke out about how the development might affect residents who live nearby on Nortica Avenue, where he grew up and where his parents still live. 

"This project is literally in our back yards," Abbasi told the alderman during the June 19 meeting. "There are going to be 33-foot buildings literally in our back yards."

During a meeting on March 25, Taliaferro said that he would meet in private with residents on the block and on June 20, he vowed to continue discussions with the developer about issues that might affect residents who live on Nortica Avenue. 

During the Plan Commission meeting, Commissioner Fran Grossman — the only commissioner to vote against the zoning changes — took issue with Tucker Development paying fees in lieu of providing the number of affordable units required under the city's Affordable Requirements Ordinance.

"It seems to me that this is a perfect location for every unit that can be affordable to be [on site]," she said. "This should support people who live there now, many of whom may not live in big, expensive high-rises."

In a letter he submitted to the commission, Taliaferro wrote that "proposed development will be a truly transformational project within the neighborhood and will create quality commercial and residential uses for the 29th ward. It will also generate permanent jobs."

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