Marshall Field building proposals in limbo

Plans for Bank of America, Harken Health appear stalled, dead, respectively


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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

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."


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Bridgett Baron  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 9:54 PM

@Barbara, for around Lake and Kenilworth, there is a parking garage just north of Lake on Forest, in the new Vantage building. In the other direction, there is the Avenue parking garage behind (east) Oak Park Ave, entrance is on North Blvd. For Downtown Oak Park, the Holly Court garage has three entrances---with the least hassle one being from Ontario, as if you were to be going to Trader Joe's. The next one is from Marion Street just north of Lake, and the third one is hidden. It's in the alley behind FFC. There's a little street between Bar Louie and Chipotle that one could take, and then hook a right. Or, if you are travelling north on Harlem, you can take a right in to the alley, just passed Lake Street.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 8:47 PM

River Forest doesn't own that "park," Ada. It's owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve. They allow RF to use it.

Paul Wonney  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 7:23 PM

Jenna Brown Russell, now that you have read it, now read it to the opposite of what you read and you will understand its real meaning.

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 7:06 PM

Paul, you just suggested that a senior citizen ride a rented bicycle in a blizzard. And then congratulated us as a community for over-paying for all sorts of hip schemes like that. If it weren't for the bike racks, perhaps this elderly couple could have parked in those spots.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 7:06 PM

no not kidding Darlene - hotel hotel hotel!!!! Parking and traffic are already screwed. Maybe we should just mandate there has to be parking if you build a hotel. Maybe River Forest could buck up a bit and put a parking garage up in a small corner of that park that I never see utilized.

Paul Wonney  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 5:19 PM

Barbara Purington, you can find a Divvy bicycle on Forest Avenue, by Chicago Avenue. It is that block that people come to Oak Park, for the architecture. The Divvy bicycle's add to the charm of the area. You can thank the Villiage President and your loyal trustee's for finding that to be the place to put Divvy bicycle's. Take some time and find out how the Divvy bicycle's benefit you, as a tax payer

Barbara Purington  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 5:00 PM

@Darlene Meacham: spot on! We tried to park Sat night, around 7 PM around Lake and Kenilworth. I was frustrated, I suggested we go home. Where's the public parking for this area? I know, the answer is we should be riding our bikes, even though we are AARP-aged and it was snowing. Uber drivers, there's a market here for you, with the locals alone!

Bridgett Baron  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 1:24 PM

I wonder if a hotel would happen. The Vantage building now up at Forest and Lake was originally supposed to be a hotel. Then the housing market tanked in 2008, and everything stalled. A couple of years ago, when development talks started again, it was said that they couldn't get financing for a hotel, but could for apartments. Don't know if that would be true today. We are lacking in hotels in this town. We have only the Carlton, the Wright Inn, and some bed and breakfasts. Not only do we have tourism for the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, but we also have colleges in the area with nowhere to house visiting family for events like graduations.

Deborah Kadin from Oak Park  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 1:14 PM

When Borders left, the village surveyed residents on what they would want to see there. Why isn't that just resurrected?

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 12:38 PM

I look at the building and say, what history? I wonder when Marshall Field closed and it dawns on me that I don't care. All the building is now is a sign of our commercial failures.

Darlene Meacham from Oak Park  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 12:07 PM

I can understand why no new business want to come to Oak Park, or are able to stay. The parking alone is terrible. It seems every meter has a different rate, some are a quarter for 15 minutes, others are a quarter for 20 minutes. The tickets are out of control and if you don't pay them within 14 days you are doubly penalized. A hotel, are you kidding? There's not enough room for all the new apartments. We have lost our community to big buildings and no business. Oak Park has lost it's charm and appeal.

Valerie Gager  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 7:56 AM

Since the space has already been set up for a large-scale bookstore, how about a Barnes and Noble with a cafe?

Mark Ruehl from Oak Park  

Posted: December 14th, 2016 7:08 AM

Water Tower Realty should sell the building to a corporation which has the competence to make good use of the building, whether it be a glorious hotel on all floors, or an Office Max or Banana Republic on the first floor. I think it would have been a better location for the Target that is now going in the new development.

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: December 13th, 2016 9:21 PM

Psst: Mike. It's not the building or the corner. It's us.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: December 13th, 2016 4:51 PM

Agreed. Hold out for a hotel or retail. A historic building like that on a high-traffic/high-visibility corner deserves better than another bank branch or office space.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: December 13th, 2016 4:28 PM

Hotel Hotel Hotel!!!

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