Little about the tensions over how to improve the Harrison Street Arts District has changed in years.
Talk at a village board study session Monday night centered on the familiar issues of empty, dilapidated storefronts, property rights, the need for parking, and how to promote arts-related businesses.
However, the village now has approximately $2.5 million to spend on improving Harrison, money the board first tagged for infrastructure improvements but wanted to hear residents’ and business owners’ feedback.
“If you can give us some very pragmatic ideas … we can begin to make some things happen,” Trustee Robert Milstein said.
The study session, however, was no ordinary village board meeting. More than 50 people crowded into the “El Fogon” party room at La Majada Restaurant, 226 Harrison St., many with cocktails in hand, most sitting at chips-and-salsa-lined tables.
And although the issues are old and many of the players the same, passions were ignited by two words many community members hinted at and Milstein uttered: “eminent domain.” At one point, a shouting match looked as if it might turn to fisticuffs.
On one side were residents, business owners and property owners?#34;some of whom are members of the decade-old organization Business and Residents United to Serve Harrison, or BRUSH?#34;and trustees who lay blame for the district’s stagnation on Chris Kleronomos, whose family has owned much of the property in the district for nearly 90 years.
BRUSH and others say Kleronomos has not only failed to keep his property rented, but also that he hasn’t kept buildings in good condition, citing rat infestation, caving roofs and other code violations.
“Unless the rats are paying taxes,” improvements need to be made, Milstein said, banging the drum for seizure of Kleronomos’ properties. “We can no longer sit back and leave these buildings the way they look.”
Trustee Martha Brock, who has lived on Harrison Street for 16 years, said she wouldn’t want children to walk near the Kleronomos-owned building across the street from La Majada for fear of the rats.
“I don’t want to spend another freakin’ year looking at freakin’ buildings that look like this,” Brock said.
Milstein later said now is the time for Kleronomos to “make things happen.”
Rising to defend himself, Kleronomos said rental rates on his commercial properties were different?#34;much higher?#34;than the smaller spaces inhabited by galleries and boutique shops on Harrison, making finding tenants more difficult.
Kleronomos said he’s taken plans to village hall, only to be turned away in the past. Plans in 1999 called for a 300-room hotel on the south side of Harrison, and using the hole dug in Barrie Park to remove toxic waste at the time as the beginning of an underground parking/sports arena/conservatory/park project. Another grand-scale plan involved paying premiums for homes near Harrison to deepen the lots, thus opening more possibilities.
But Kleronomos said he now has a new plan, this time a block-long project on the north side of Harrison, from Lombard Avenue west to Harvey Avenue. Addressing the board, he said the project follows a 2003 UIC-led character study, and vehemently challenged the board to approve the project if trustees were interested in seeing action.
“If you guys decide … that that’s within the purview of the UIC study, then let’s do it, ladies and gentlemen,” Kleronomos said. “I would love nothing more than to tear two goddamn blocks down because … our frustration is beyond your wildest dreams.
“Let’s see some action. You show me some action, that [the UIC study] is a vision … you’re willing to work on,” he said.
After the meeting, Kleronomos said his vision called for 21,000 square feet of new first-floor commercial space, 62 condominiums and approximately 175 parking spaces, with those for residential being below ground. An additional 13,000 square feet of mezzanine business space?#34;intended for medical offices or other non-retail uses?#34;would be directly accessible from the structured parking.
Business and property owner R.D. Hunting said that he and other members of the Harrison Street Business Alliance who’ve seen plan were impressed with it, calling it a “real plan.”
Trustee Ray Johnson said eminent domain would be a long and costly legal battle, and that more readily attainable solutions should be sought, including improved streetlights with outlets that would allow the district to don special lights for events.
The board responded favorably to a request from business owners for approximately $30,000 to be spent on marketing and advertising.