By Anna Lothson
The deal has been in the works for roughly two years, but following approval from Oak Park's village board Monday, WeightWatchers will be one step closer to moving into the vacant property at 477 N. Harlem Ave., adjacent to the popular Trader Joe's location.
The 1,300-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Oak Park Place Apartment complex, more commonly known as the Whiteco building, has been empty since the building opened in 2008. Because the building sits in a transit-oriented retail overlay district, WeightWatchers needed a special-use permit to operate in the space.
The case was reviewed by the Zoning Board or Appeals multiple times and was approved about six months after the application was first filed with the village. In late June, the zoning board passed a recommendation 4-1, moving the issue to the village board.
On July 16, the request got the approval needed and now all that's left is signing a lease.
Anthony Gamez, vice president at David King & Associations, who helped his client lease the new space, said WeightWatchers' current location at 1019 W. Madison St. is too small. He said the building, located near Harlem and Lake, offers growth opportunities for his client and also creates a nice synergy with nearby businesses.
Being next to Trader Joe's has been a priority for WeightWatchers since groups can walk after a class and learn about what foods to buy for a healthy lifestyle. Gamez said the proximity to the Downtown Oak Park shopping district is another perk.
The retail designation of the district, however, is what made the move initially tricky. But unlike other cases, WeightWatchers received unusual support from the Downtown Oak Park business association and the Oak Park Development Corporation to move a primarily non-retail business into the area.
Sara Faust, president of OPDC, said WeightWatchers will likely bring 500 weekly visitors to the downtown area. It also plans to sell retail products at its new shop with the added space.
"We're thrilled," Faust said. "We think it's going to be a very positive use. They are a traffic driver."
Over time, she said, WeightWatchers' goal as a national chain has been to become more visible in communities, which means sticking closer to a city's downtown area. Faust said the spot near Harlem and Lake, a unique area tucked back from the typical downtown crowd, is a difficult sell for traditional retail.
Overall, Faust called the approval for WeightWatchers "a good compromise."
The support from the business organizations is what Gamez thinks pushed the issue forward. He suspects that because the location sits on the outskirt of the business community, north of Lake Street, the zoning board agreed the space is better suited for a service-type business.
Pat Zubak, president of DTOP, agreed with Faust that the location presents a unique situation. She said the isolation from other retailers makes WeightWatchers "highly complementary" to the retail district. Other non-retail requests in the district haven't received the same support, such as a dentist office seeking to move to Marion Street, but Zubak said the two areas have different customer bases.
Harlem Avenue doesn't have the retail to "feed off" each other, she said, and doesn't encourage as many people to walk by.
According to a village report, the property has been marketed to various retail tenants over the years through local business contacts, but no success at leasing the property was made. According to testimony at a zoning hearing, mainly national chains were approached to move into the property.
The building itself was put up for sale by Whiteco in May. The 14-story, 204-unit luxury apartment building was controversial from the start as it went through a multi-year approval process and many redesigns before receiving approval. The Trader Joe's on the ground level has been successful, and after WeightWatchers moves in, there is still one vacant space remaining.
No discussion was scheduled about the matter at Monday's board meeting, but in the agreement are two conditions and restrictions applied to this specific case. The special-use approval is limited to the current use and owner, according to the zoning documents. Any expansion or change in use without further approval would terminate the special-use allowance. If that were to happen, it would be considered a violation and the village's zoning administrator would have the right to take "appropriate action."
For now, however, the village's approval is a step forward for the property and a lease could be finalized within a month, Gamez said. The terms of the lease remain confidential since they're not officially signed, but WeightWatchers could move in as soon as the next few months.
watching, weighting: WeightWatchers will soon occupy the space just south of Trader Joe's, formerly reserved for retail.