When Bob Loro looks out the front door of his Loro Auto Works Collision Repair business at 1029 South Blvd., he can’t help but survey the unfinished SoHo mixed-use property at the intersection of South Boulevard and Home Avenue.
Last year, George Washington Savings and Loan, the bank that was funding the highly anticipated, eco-friendly development, failed, leaving the project less than half completed and without money.
In June, SoHo entered into a receivership with a Chicago-based investor group, Rally Capital Services, says Peter Korab of Oak Park-based HomeScape Design and Build Market, who, with his business partner, Jonathan Shack, became involved in the project in its early stages. The two are hoping that they, or possibly another local developer, can have another go at the project.
Until then, the property that was to be the site of rows of proposed buildings that fielded 17 townhomes, 15 condominiums and first floor commercial space, sits mostly vacant. Just four condo units are occupied in one livable condo building. Three of the units are owned, and one rented.
What Loro and everyone else sees is a protective chain link and orange construction fencing, a series of no trespassing signs, and weeds, lots of them. Also visible is the white insulation material that covers the unfinished back buildings, a boarded up window, and graffiti spray painted on an outside wall. An exposed fire escape, sans a building enveloping it, sits where a fourth structure was planned. Some locals think it’s an elevator shaft. It’s not. Under the dirt on the far east side of the property are foundation footings for a building that has yet to be completed.
The property is evidence of the recession’s stranglehold over major development projects in Oak Park and elsewhere in the last few years. Korab and Shack have been stuck in a lengthy holding pattern with SoHo and an additional development, Garden Grove Townhomes on Roosevelt Road.
HomeScape, which they formed in Berwyn about seven years ago, is a collaboration of Korab’s Inner Circle restoration company and Shack’s JSC Construction custom home company. Recently, they have downsized, relocating to 101 N. Marion St. in Oak Park — just down the street from SoHo — and shifting their focus to the residential kitchen design market. Their small showroom demonstrates the use of various products, and Shack says customers can purchase individual items such as cabinetry or countertops, or work with a designer to plan and construct a kitchen from start to finish.
Snapshot of a national trend
The SoHo project was first proposed to the village by architect John Schiess and developer Alex Troyanovsky. Their idea was to design and build a townhome-only complex. It, they said, would better suit the business area and blend in with the adjacent historic architecture across the street on Home Avenue.
Many long and arduous meetings later, nearly everyone in the area, including residents and local businesses, agreed with the concept, according to Loro. Townhomes only. No condos. No retail shops.
But village trustees rejected that community-supported proposal, believing a combination of commercial, condominiums and townhomes were needed to help the project weather the ongoing economic storm.
“There are some very pragmatic, smart people in our town, and when we come together and think through a process, why wouldn’t you take that input into account?” asks Loro, a past president of the Marion Street Business Association. “The village seems to think they know better. This is just another case of showing that they don’t.”
Recommended by Schiess, Korab and Shack took over SoHo when Troyanovsky divested himself of the project. But then the bank failed, and communications with its replacement, First Merit, broke down, according to Shack.
“When First Merit first took over they told us their intentions were to continue the project and advised us to do that,” he said. “So we continued construction and finished up enough units to close out three of them at which time they stopped paying.”
Resurrecting Roosevelt Road
Meanwhile, across town HomeScape remains in a waiting game with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). In 2009 the development, Garden Grove Townhomes, had shut down when Omni National Bank out of Atlanta failed.
Just prior to that, Shack and Korab had successfully completed the Clarence Square development at Clarence Avenue and Roosevelt Road. It had sold out for the most part. Garden Grove was supposed to do the same, Shack says.
In 2008, construction got underway on the 12-unit, three-story townhome development on the corner of Grove Avenue and Roosevelt Road, and it was a welcome addition to the burgeoning business district.
“When we originally looked at the project at Grove and Roosevelt Road it was a vacant parking lot, and we thought this was going to be another successful townhome property, which had been evolving into a new residential, restaurant center in Oak Park,” Shack says. “We thought it would be a good addition to all that.”
While the brick and mortar façade of the building is finished, only three townhomes are livable. One is under contract, and another, referred to as a “show unit,” is being rented.
Shack says that he and his partner are still waiting for the property to enter its receivership phase, and have unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the FDIC to purchase the property back.
“We tried to deal with the bank, the investment group. And the negotiations just didn’t go anywhere,” he says. “We couldn’t get them to talk, basically. So, we’re just sitting and waiting.”
Paul Zimmermann, president of the Roosevelt Road Business Association is sympathetic to Shack and Korab’s frustrating situation.
“Here are two good, local business guys caught in a bad situation,” says Zimmerman, who himself owns properties on Roosevelt Road in Oak Park and Berwyn. “You see so many developers in this economy now who just want to make their money and get out. Jonathan and Peter are the exact opposite. They were even willing to buy the Garden Grove property back after their bank failed, but the FDIC wouldn’t even give them a shake.”
Korab adds that because he and Shack have lived and worked in the community so long they both just want to see these two particular projects go forward.
“We’ve been building in this community for 30 years, and our name is on it, so we take that all really seriously. But what we’re finding out is that the banks and financial [institutions] that took over don’t really have any say in the community and have shown us that they don’t really care what happens to us as a company.”