A wave of development, including a new senior housing complex, is transforming the Northwest Side’s Six Corners area

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New development is finally underway throughout the Six Corners area in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood, bringing sighs of relief from residents tired of seeing vacant properties and storefronts. The worst eyesore, according to local development leaders, was a giant hole in the ground at the area’s main crossroads, the result of a failed development project.

The hole blighted the intersection of Cicero and Milwaukee avenues and Irving Park Road for years, but Clarendale Six Corners, a $130 million, 10-story senior housing building by Ryan Cos., now occupies the site, ready to start welcoming renters in the fall. In its wake, other developers began unveiling projects, including new residences and medical facilities, attracting in turn new shops and restaurants.

The momentum has raised hopes that Six Corners could soon become what it was decades ago, a thriving business district humming with activity.

“When I was a kid, my grandma used to take me out shopping and there were tons of different dress shops, then we’d go out to lunch and also visit all these huge sidewalk sales,” said Amie Zander, 44, managing director of Six Corners Association, a neighborhood group. But the 2016 demolition of a historic bank building at Six Corners, and the 2018 shutdown of the nearby Sears store, Chicago’s last, took a lot of life out of the streets.

“It became a quiet place,” Zander said. “It’s starting to come back, but it’s been a long time coming.”

Amie Zander, managing director of Six Corners Association, stands outside the offices in the Six Corners area on Aug. 10, 2022, in Chicago. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

But groups such as Zander’s, as well as other local activists, aren’t bystanders to the new development. They say it’s important to keep pressing builders to include more affordable housing and pursue projects that won’t wreck Portage Park’s character, or change the neighborhood of bungalows into a suburban-style community with huge parking lots and little walkable retail.

“I would never call myself anti-development, and I don’t care how tall buildings are, let’s build them up,” said S. Gronkiewicz-Doran, chair of United Northwest Side, a local political organization. “But local residents have been clamoring for more affordable units, and that’s not just an issue in Six Corners, it’s an issue across the Northwest Side. Anyone who has tried to find an apartment in the past few years knows what I’m talking about.”

The bank demolition left behind the neighborhood’s infamous hole, but Ryan Cos. Director of Real Estate Development Brandon Raymond said Six Corners was a perfect site for a senior development, especially one providing not just traditional apartments, but assisted living and memory care units for residents who need more care.

“There were no such senior living communities within 5 miles of our site,” Raymond said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen that in any other city I’ve worked in.”

People cross a street at Six Corners with the new senior housing development in the background on Aug. 10, 2022. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

A newly built kitchen is seen in the independent living wing of the new Six Corners senior residences building on Aug. 10, 2022. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Ryan started construction at 4747 W. Irving Park Road in early 2021, and will by next month complete 258 apartments, including 114 independent living units, 98 assisted living units and 46 for memory care. The first floor will provide nearly 18,000 square feet of retail space, and a one-story Aldi grocery store will be just south of the building.

Completing the building will mark the end of a long process. Developer Clark Street Real Estate bought the site in 2014 for $10 million, but its original plans for 100,000 square feet of retail with about 270 rooftop parking spaces fell through.

“The developer went to the market, and the market said, ‘not quite,’” said then 45th Ward Ald. John Arena at a 2018 community meeting, probably due to the tough challenge facing retailers from online shopping. “There are factors outside of our control.”

The new plan for senior housing did cause some unease when first presented at the same meeting. Some neighborhood residents thought the $4,400 per-month rent for the independent units was too high for local retirees.

Clarendale Six Corners will still be much more affordable than high-end retirement communities, which sometimes ask residents to plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars before they can move in, Raymond said. The Clarendale will offer amenities including an outdoor terrace, gourmet dining, valet parking and a movie theater.

A bar and bistro is under construction in the independent living wing of the new Six Corners senior housing building on Aug. 10, 2022. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

The developers eventually won over groups such as Zander’s and new 45th Ward Ald. James Gardiner, who ousted Arena in 2019, partly by expanding the number of independent living units. Ryan also agreed to fulfill its obligations under Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance by reserving 10% of those apartments for affordable housing, with rents starting at $1,173, rather than simply paying a fee into a city housing fund. The new development will include a pedestrian plaza open to the public. Ryan bought the site in early 2021, according to CoStar.

“It’s an open community area that local residents can use however they want,” said Raymond.

But Zander said she is most excited about the hundreds of jobs coming to Six Corners. The senior residents, especially those in assisted living and memory care, will require nurses, caregivers, chefs and many others, all potential customers for local businesses.

“We don’t have a large employment center right now, and all of these workers are going to need different things throughout the day, like places to get lunch or coffee,” she said. “We’re pumped up about it.”

Since Ryan began its work, Novak Construction kicked off the redevelopment of the historic Sears store into a multifamily community with 207 luxury apartments, along with a Target store on the ground floor, which it expects to complete next year. Only six apartments will be reserved as affordable, and the developer agreed to pay roughly $2 million into the city’s housing fund. And GW Properties, which is working up a plan to replace a vacant Peoples Gas site one block east of the Clarendale with a mixed-use development anchored by a grocery, also started construction on a two-story medical building at 3934 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Construction is underway on Aug. 10 at the old Sears building in the Six Corners area on Chicago’s Northwest Side. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

“Thirty years ago, Six Corners was a heavily trafficked corner, but even though there has been a push to revive the community, it needed a project to be the catalyst for other development, and sure enough, that’s happened,” Raymond said.

Mitch Goltz, principal and co-founder of GW Properties, said it’s unusual to see so much construction happening all at once on a few square blocks. But it’s also unusual to see major buildings and properties such as the old Peoples Gas and Sears sites, as well as Ryan’s Clarendale site, left open at the same time.

“It’s a rare opportunity to have this many development sites available for new projects,” he said.

The new construction is already attracting restaurants and shops such as the newly opened Hot Dog Box at 4020 N. Milwaukee Ave. and Lovin’ Scoop, a gourmet ice cream shop and cafe at 4032 N. Milwaukee Ave., Zander said. Shopping on the Milwaukee Avenue retail corridor is still slow, and vacant storefronts remain, but she expects growth will continue as the neighborhood becomes a destination for new residents, medical patients and employees of the Clarendale.

Bobby Morelli thanks supporters for attending the grand opening of the Hot Dog Box near Six Corners in Chicago on Jan. 15, 2022. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

“These new businesses are opening in anticipation of all these great things coming soon,” she said. “They are going to have more customers, and that’s our No. 1 issue, keeping the small businesses on Milwaukee filled.”

Ron Eric Edrosa is ready to launch a new business just across the street from Clarendale Six Corners. A coffee enthusiast who began roasting his own beans more than 20 years ago, Edrosa said his wife, who works as a nurse at a VA hospital, encouraged him to make something of his hobby, so they bought a small building on the 3900 block of North Cicero Avenue in 2018, moved into the second-floor apartment, and plan to open Veloria Coffee, a combination shop and roasting operation, on the first floor.

“When we moved in, Sears was still open, although they were on their last legs and this area didn’t have much going on,” he said. “But there were also no Starbucks in the neighborhood, and we could see something positive was going to happen at the Ryan site, even though at that time we didn’t know exactly what it would be.”

They planned to open several years ago, but when the pandemic hit financing dried up. They now expect to secure in the next few months a new loan, backed by a grant from the city’s Small Business Improvement Fund, which would fund the ground floor’s reconstruction into a coffee shop. In the meantime, Edrosa continues the small roasting operation, bringing his coffees to local community events to get the word out, and sometimes even makes a free cup of coffee for someone strolling by the shop.

Ron Eric Edrosa sits at his Veloria Coffee store in the Six Corners area on Aug. 10, 2022, in Chicago. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Edrosa bags coffee beans at his Veloria Coffee in the Six Corners area on Aug. 10, 2022, in Chicago. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

“This is our home, but we also want to create something here for the community, a real local coffee shop where people can park themselves and get some work done,” he said. “It’s also always been a dream of mine to do something like this, something where we’re working for ourselves.”

The former Peoples Gas site at 3955 N. Kilpatrick Ave. is the last big empty space in the neighborhood, but GW Properties hit a snag when presenting its plan, called The Shops at Six Corners, at a community meeting last October, Zander said. Company officials proposed a group of structures, including several apartment buildings with a total of 102 units. The Lightfoot administration strengthened the Affordable Requirements Ordinance in 2021, so 20% of the new units would have to be affordable. Also included were a restaurant, other small retail and a 40,000-square-foot Amazon grocery store, along with hundreds of parking spaces.

“People were booing, and (online) people were saying, ‘this is garbage,’ and it was mostly because they had this huge parking lot right on the street,” Zander said.

Zander likes the idea of an Amazon store, but would prefer walkable retail with the stores, rather than cars lining the sidewalks, she added. GW Properties went back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan that it hopes will pass muster with neighborhood groups and city planning officials, but it hasn’t been released yet.

“We really want to work with them, and they know that, but nobody wants to look at a parking lot,” she said. “We are on the edge of the city, but we’re not the suburbs.”

Gronkiewicz-Doran said boosting the affordable housing requirement to 20% is a good thing, but United Northwest Side will still pressure developers to place all the affordable units on-site, rather than getting around the requirement by paying in-lieu fees to the city.

“I’m happy to see something built, but just because it’s something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to ask for more,” they said. “As community advocates, that’s our job.”

brogal@chicagotribune.com

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August 16, 2022 at 07:04AM

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