The one-block stretch of commercial space at Harlem and Lake, starting with the former Marshall Field building, has struggled for years to attract the kind of retail storefront businesses Oak Park leaders would like to see in a downtown area — businesses that not only serve local Oak Parkers but attract shoppers regionally and produce lucrative sales tax revenue for the village.
Now it appears that plans for two nonconforming businesses approved for the retail business district — which would have been located in the former Field's building at 1144 Lake St. — have either stalled or been cancelled completely.
Nicholas Karris, owner of Water Tower Realty, which owns the Marshall Field building, appeared twice before the Oak Park Board of Trustees this year seeking variances from the local zoning ordinance. He was given approval by the board to locate a Bank of America branch and, separately, a health insurance provider, known as Harken Health, in the building that has sat empty since Borders bookstore left in 2011.
Those two businesses are nonconforming in the downtown commercial corridor because the local 'zoning ordinance aims to attract retail businesses and restaurants that bring shoppers to the district, rather than businesses that provide services but don't sell anything and don't generate sales tax dollars.
Over the last two years, a handful of new businesses have popped up along Lake between Harlem and Marion, some of which business leaders have praised and others not so much.
The announcement in late November by Clark Street Real Estate that Target would be the anchor retail tenant of its 271-unit, mixed-use development, Elevate Oak Park, expected to open in 2017, has potentially changed the dynamic of the corner. The space on the north side of the Field's building that would have been occupied by the health-care provider recently appeared on the sublet market, which suggests that Harken secured a lease with Karris at the location but decided to pull out.
A Harken spokesman declined requests for an interview but released a statement by email which neither confirmed nor denied that the group had reversed its decision to locate in the building.
"Harken Health is focused on expanding our innovative model of pairing health insurance with access to relationship-based care to more businesses throughout Chicago during 2017," reads a statement from Jeff Shoemate, chief marketing and communications officer for Harken. "With that in mind, we are listening closely to our current and potential business members as we finalize new Harken Health Center locations for the coming year. We are excited to announce a new location opening in Skokie next year and will share additional information as more Health Center locations are finalized."
The Bank of America branch, which was expected to open on the Lake Street side of the Marshall Field building, also appears stalled. Diane Wagner, a spokesman for Bank of America, said the bank still is conducting due diligence on the location but could not say definitively if the bank still plans to open a branch at the location.
Both deals are private, so the village's local business development organization, the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, has had little to do with the proposals. But John Lynch, OPEDC executive director, said he has heard that the Bank of America deal is on hold.
"It's our understanding that Bank of America is taking a close look at all their potential new location announcements," Lynch said in a telephone interview. "My understanding is that our location was still in the mix of potential locations."
If the Harken Health and Bank of America deals fall through, it wouldn't be the first time a nonconforming tenant at the location pulled out after being given approval by the village to occupy the site. Karris was given the OK to locate an Ultimate Fighting Championship Gym at the Harken Health site in 2014, but the business never opened.
Getting another zoning variance for a nonconforming business could prove increasingly difficult with the announcement that Target is opening across the street next year. Karris has argued that it has been difficult to find a retail tenant to occupy the former Border's space.
The OPEDC executive board declined to give a recommendation for the bank proposal in July. Lynch told the Oak Park Board of Trustees at that time that the organization's executive board was split on the project, with half preferring a retail store or restaurant in that location.
"There were certainly folks who look at the [business district] and who feel very strongly that a retail use or a restaurant use or a café or a store, traditional retail, is a desirable use there," Lynch told the board of trustees in July. "I think many of us would agree with that. In an ideal world, that would be the case."
Answer Book 2018
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