Scroll to the bottom of this page to read reader responses to the Lane Bryant saga as well as past Wednesday Journal articles.
After a week of taking a beating in the Chicago and national press, where Oak Park was painted as discriminating against Lane Bryant and its plus-sized customers, the village board appeared ready to compromise Tuesday.
The board issued this statement early Tuesday: “[Developer] RSC [& Associates] has reached out to the Village and we are hoping to sit down later this week with representatives of the company to try and resolve the contractual issues.” RSC recently filed a $2.4 million lawsuit against the village over the Lane Bryant issue.
“That’s good for everybody, probably,” said Richard Curto, CEO of RSC, the developer of the downtown Oak Park building under construction and known as the 1120 Club.
Last week, Curto was quoted repeatedly in print and on broadcasts saying he was never told why the Village of Oak Park would not approve his selection of Lane Bryant, the women’s plus-size clothing retailer, to a lease in one of the building’s commercial spaces.
Village President David Pope countered Monday: It’s not the size of the clothes. In fact, it’s not the company’s niche-ness necessarily, or even the quality of the retailer, as previously stated.
It’s the developer.
On Jan. 10 RSC e-mailed the village a letter and “presentation book” highlighting Lane Bryant’s upscale proposal for 1120 Lake St. However, said Pope, that came after the developer had already signed the clothier to a lease for the space. Pope said that disregarded the agreement RSC signed in March 2004 to redevelop the previously village-owned property, which includes preservation of the Drechsler Building, 1116 Lake St..
In signing the agreement, Curto and RSC acknowledged they had to choose potential tenants from the village’s pre-approved list, or appeal to the board in writing for businesses like Lane Bryant which were not on the list. No process, no approval, breach of contract, says Pope.
Curto says that’s not the right timeline. He cites an RSC letter to the village dated June 22, 2005, that asks the board to approve Lane Bryant, as it had approved another retailer previously for the Drechsler Building space using the same process. That retailer later backed out.
After receiving the appeal letter, the village asked for an extension to the 15-day deadline to rule on Lane Bryant. RSC’s approval of the extension set a new deadline, July 21, 2005, which Curto says the village did not meet. Qui tacet consentit: silence implies assent, says Curto. The retailer was, in his interpretation, approved. So Curto moved ahead and signed Lane Bryant to a lease.
Curto would not fax Wednesday Journal a copy of the lease, citing a confidentiality clause.
However, he said, there is no clause in the lease with Lane Bryant allowing RSC to back out if it does not receive village approval. If Lane Bryant were not allowed to take possession of the store, RSC could become liable.
In fact, if the retailer isn’t able to move into the store and get up and running before the holiday shopping season, it would add “another dimension” to the matter, Curto said.
“Lane Bryant is focused on getting in there very shortly,” he said.
To nudge things along, RSC filed suit against the village in Cook County court last month. The focus of the suit is getting Lane Bryant in, not the $2.4 million in damages requested, Curto said.
In its own attack on Oak Park, Lane Bryant took out two full-page advertisements in Monday’s Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times featuring a voluptuous woman shown from the waist up and wearing only a strapless black brassier. In large type the ad asks, “62% of women aren’t sexy? We emphatically disagree!” referring to the company’s statistic that 62 percent of women in the U.S. wear a plus size, and to the fact that Oak Park was named a “sexy” suburb last year by The View, a morning TV show aimed at female viewers.
The ad continues, “How do you define sexy? Is it simply determined by size and shape? At Lane Bryant, a truly sexy woman has … a body as curvy as nature intended her to be. … We champion what plus-size women see in the mirror every day without regret, without excuses, without fear. And we always will.”
An extraordinary step for a retailer? Curto was surprised to see the ads and said they were further evidence of the “life of its own” the issue has taken on.
However, he confirmed Monday that he has another connection to Lane Bryant. His son and the son of Lane Bryant’s chair and CEO Mrs. Dorrit J. Bern played football together in high school.
Curto emphasized that he met Bern just once, that the connection “did not one iota” affect his decision to sign the retailer, and added that, “I have not talked to her once since the old football days back in 2002, and I was not aware that our real estate leasing people were talking to Lane Bryant.”
But Pope says RSC employees began talking to him about the retailer since the beginning of the agreement. Curto says he can’t recall talking to Pope about Lane Bryant, but remembers Pope saying he’d like to see Tiffany Co. and Coach in the space, retailers he doubted would be interested but he followed up on anyway.
“How could you not want a Lane Bryant in a downtown district?” Curto said is the broader question.
“Whether it’s in that spot or any spot, Lane Bryant does have a place” in Downtown Oak Park, said Pat Zubak, executive director of the Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) business association. “We’d love to have Lane Bryant. They’re a fine retailer. They’d fit into our mix.”
Zubak said DTOP has a “targeted list” of retailers it would like to attract, which Lane Bryant is on. Village board members said the retailer was also on a pre-approved list for the Shops of Downtown Oak Park, the development built some 10 years ago and now home to The Gap, Pier 1 Imports, Old Navy and others.
Pope said he originally opposed Lane Bryant in 2004 because he did not think the retailer fit the quality he hoped to see in the space. He points to the difference between two nearby Lane Bryant stores: the one in North Riverside Park Mall, an older store, and the one in Oak Brook, a newer one. He said changes the retailer has made likely would have meant inclusion on the list if it were being made today.
His voting against Lane Bryant in January was based on ill-will caused by RSC’s signing the company to a lease without board approval.
Trustee Ray Johnson said he is the only member of the board to support the inclusion of Lane Bryant both recently?#34;when the board “voted” on the matter in January?#34;and when it came up originally with the previous board.
The recent vote was not actually a vote and was never discussed in a meeting. Pope said it was a subject that might not have qualified for a closed session, but whose subject should not be completely discussed publicly, so board members delivered their feedback in one-on-one phone calls with staff members.
Johnson said it’s wrong for the board to turn down Lane Bryant based on its not appearing on the previous board’s pre-approval retailer list, and that he finds flawed “all rationale and reason to date” used to explain why the company would not be approved.
“I thought they would be a fine retailer and never thought it would” become an issue that would appear on the Today Show, he said, as it did Thursday morning.
“There are times when I think trustees think they’re the experts on these matters and we’re not,” Johnson said.
Pope agreed. He said the previous board ought to have had a retail expert help inform the decision, and that the current board has made conducting a retail study a priority, although the process has not begun.
Johnson said what Lane Bryant has proposed for the site is “stunning,” from signage to lighting to oak floors.
“It [would] give women an exciting place to shop,” he said. “It’s like nothing we have in Downtown Oak Park today.”
Johnson added that he admires the company’s philosophy of giving back to the communities it serves, and the fact that it boasts a $30 million marketing budget.
Curto said the lawsuit’s focus in on getting Lane Bryant into the retail space to join the 5,650-square-foot restaurant Bar Louie, the 47,000-square-foot second- and third-floor Fitness Formula health club, and three others, including the Drechsler space.