By Dan Haley
Something got off track recently with plans for Noon Whistle, a microbrewery, to sign a lease and open on Chicago Avenue near Austin Boulevard. The owners of the building — these days an indoor athletic facility but back a decade the mustiest auto repair shop you could imagine — said they worried about being left with a built-out and unusable brewing facility if the microbrew concept didn't fly.
Besides, said Bill and Bob Planek of Oak Park Apartments, they have two tenants — Derby Lite and Legacy Sports Camp — sharing the space currently, even if not on a long-term lease.
Too bad by my measure as this was a small and actively ignored shopping strip in Oak Park that has been on hard times forever. Chicago and Austin needs a breakout business that is a true destination. Just won't be this one.
The Noon Whistle fellows, with their Oak Park roots, say they still want to be here and they're working with the old/new Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to scout other locations. That's good, though with my knowledge of microbrewing limited to seeing pictures, any site seems likely to require wide open space with ceiling heights rarely seen in Oak Park.
Can think of a couple of buildings that might fill the bill: one's already been identified by one of our OakPark.com commenters. That's the long, long, long vacant Home Juice property on Harrison Street just east of Ridgeland. This was, I think, a distribution warehouse from which was delivered, you guessed it, juice to your home. Oak Park doesn't have many of these odd industrial sites and this one has been waiting for a micro-brewery for decades — and just around the corner from Open Door Theater.
Down the street, in the heart of the Oak Park Arts District is the rot of the multiple Kleronomos family-owned properties. All seven of them — from Taylor to Harvey along Harrison Street — are now mired in foreclosure. Before they were mired in foreclosure these past two years, they were mired in being owned by the Kleronomoses for something like the past 70 years. And that ownership, which dates back to just after the Depression, translates to ill repair, vacancies measured in three decades, and facades literally falling off of buildings.
That Oak Park, which can feel so obsessive over some building code issues, allowed this River Forest family to dictate an inadequate future for the plucky artists and arts retailers trying to hold together an Arts District around a gaping sore, is one of the great mysteries of local governance.
Now we wait, mostly, for the next spasms of the foreclosure process to eventually disgorge these many buildings back into the marketplace where, hopefully, they can be put to use by entrepreneurs. One of those buildings might make a microbrewery. Surely the Arts District would welcome such a destination business and the entire district needs more restaurant and bar uses to go with the galleries and the dance studios and the community theater.
This Monday morning there is some armchair quarterbacking that Noon Whistle and Oak Park moved too fast and too publicly in creating the liquor license for such a business, in meeting with potential neighbors, in being reported in the press. Speed and transparency are not the problem here and shouldn't be the lesson taken. A business deal came apart. It happens. No villains. Rather, the village gets kudos for crafting a microbrew license in six weeks. The new EDC gets credit for matching a great use with a vital location.
Noon Whistle gets thanks for continuing its Oak Park search.
We'll just wait a bit longer for that first draft.