Sears Norh Harlem - view from southwest corner of the property | Provided

Redevelopment plans for the site of the former Harlem and North Sears store and other nearby vacant land have expanded to include a 62,000-square-foot medical facility as well as a free-standing grocery store and some new housing. Developers and city officials attended a virtual community meeting about the redevelopment project organized by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) on Dec. 14.

Residents have waited years for the now-demolished Sears store to be replaced with new development. Plans for a mixed-use development fell through in 2020, and officials at the time promised a grocery store was coming. The pandemic has slowed the project, however.

During the meeting, the developers of the property and two adjacent sites said a yet-to-be-finalized grocery store is still coming, and shared details of a medical facility that was first announced in Aug. 30.

Sears North Harlem Site – View from Harlem Avenue | Provided

Ald. Taliaferro and executives with Novak Construction, which owns the North and Harlem site, declined to share the name of the medical tenant. They said the tenant will be revealed within the next three months once that entity gets the necessary state approvals.

However during the meeting a Novak executive dropped several clues as to the identity of the health provider. Attendees were told the organization has been around for 180 years, is a well-known teaching hospital and is “a hospital that you know well.” That  description might best fit Rush University Medical Center. Contacted by Wednesday Journal, a spokesman for Rush would neither confirm nor deny its intentions about the property. Rush currently operates Rush Oak Park Hospital in Oak Park.

John Novak, CEO of Novak Construction, said during the meeting that the medical facility could cost up to $100 million and be done by late 2024.

The grocery store and a residential area with 125 apartments and 25 townhomes would be built nearby at Neva and Wabansia avenues, with construction set to begin next summer.

Taliaferro and Novak representatives said the hospital and the other projects represent new community development and investment.

“I want to build something that we’re going to be proud of,” Novak said. “I think this is going to set the stage for our work on the West Side and bring a lot of value to the community.”

Sears North Harlem Site- Night view | Provided

The proposed medical building would stand three stories and be 60 feet tall. It would have 300 parking spaces. It would provide same-day appointments and services such as X-rays, MRIs, mammograms and ultrasounds. It stops short of being a fully realized hospital, however, as it would not provide surgeries, 24-hour care, or beds for overnight stays.

“Our goal was to design a building that was an asset for many years,” said Jake Paschen, senior vice president of Novak Construction. “We wanted to get high-profile healthcare to the community, to offer quick and convenient care. We believe it was worth it to get this healthcare provider and they will be a tremendous asset to the community.”

When reached for comment, a Rush spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied the speculation that their institution was considering building at the corner of North and Harlem. 

Rush, he said, is “regularly evaluating opportunities for collaboration and clinical space, but we do not speak to any such ventures until the timing is appropriate. Partnership opportunities and new care sites are thoroughly evaluated with an overarching goal of making it more convenient for people living and working in the region to receive the most coordinated, advanced health care available.”

When Sears closed, the property was owned by Seritage Growth Holdings, Sears’ real estate arm. Seritage eventually spun off into a separate company and hired Tucker Development, which decided to pursue a mixed-use development on the site that would incorporate the refurbished store building and apartments on the east parking lot. In September 2020, Seritage sold the property to Novak.

Bringing the grocery store to the site has been Taliaferro’s priority since Sears closed and a grocery store was once part of Tucker’s proposal. But during his Aug. 30 community meeting, the alderman said that, while Jewel-Osco expressed strong interest, Novak decided to go with a medical tenant. During the Dec. 14 meeting, Paschen said that Novak has had “several extensive discussions” with grocery tenants that eventually fell through before noting that the firm is still actively looking for a grocery store tenant. He declined to say whether or not they were still in negotiations with Jewel-Osco.

The vacant lots sit on the western edge of the city between Austin’s Galewood neighborhood and the intersection of suburban River Forest, Oak Park and Elmwood Park. Neighbors were largely receptive to the changes being made, with one resident welcoming the medical facility. He said lack of healthcare access would force him to often go to Northbrook for treatment.

“That area has been an eyesore so I’m glad that something is finally being done with it,” J. Bosco said. “I’m really excited for this; it will be a great addition to the community.

One resident, Charley Nelson, told Block Club he’s concerned about traffic coming from busy North Avenue. Nonetheless, he believes it is a net positive for the area.

“There’s so much potential for the North Avenue corridor and I hope that the Sears site can be a catalyst for the whole corridor’s development and livability,” Nelson said.

Steve Green, chair of the Galewood Neighbors community organization’s board of directors, said he was pleased with the way Novak responded to residents concern about site cleanliness.

“It’s nice to see something coming to fruition,” he said. “It’s a beautiful building.”

Judith Alexander, the chair of The North Avenue District business development organization, said she has no issue with the proposal, and that she wants to make sure that any development is pedestrian-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.

“Whatever fronts North Avenue, please don’t make it a blank wall,” she said.

CONTACT: igor@growingcommunitymedia.org  

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...