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Cubs Wed May 19 2010
By now just about everyone is aware of the proposed demolition/renovation on the east side of Clark between Addison and Cornelia. The plan to replace a series of bars and restaurants, as well as the iconic iO Theater (formerly Improv Olympic), with a new, modern and almost suburban looking structure has met a significant amount of public outcry over the last week and a half. This is largely due to the possible elimination of a few important Wrigleyville locales like the iO Theater and the Salt and Pepper diner, with its distinctive "EAT" sign. The plan to replace the strip with a hotel and condo structure that would, based on initial designs [PDF], be more suited for urban sprawl in the far northwest suburbs than the bustling corridor that is home to Wrigley Field. For fans of the neighborhood, the issue is further aggravated by news that the big box store Best Buy, the grocery chain Dominick's and CVS are already potential retailers slated for leases in the new building.
Improv Olympic co-founder Charna Halpern has been particularly outspoken about the ordeal given that she has a lot to lose should this project come into fruition. A staple of the neighborhood for almost 30 years, Improv Olympic has had comedic heroes like Tina Fey, Chris Farley and Andy Richter honor its stage. As well as providing cutting edge entertainment for years, it has contributed greatly to the culture and history of the neighborhood as Wrigleyville grew and changed into the entertainment district everyone knows today.
In many reports on the proposal, Alderman Tom Tunney has pointed out that Halpern and her team have known about the potential changes for over two years. While Halpern concedes that many of the business owners on the strip have been aware of the developer M&R Development's plans to add a hotel to the area, it wasn't until recently that it was revealed the structure would be entirely new, leaving many of the lessees out in the street.
Via an email interview, Halpern said the original plan was to incorporate a number of the old structures, including Salt and Pepper and her establishment, leaving her with a number of theater spaces and bars. When she finally saw the new drawings, sans the Goose Island brewpub, she knew she was in trouble. "I had a nagging feeling after seeing those plans...[the developer] said it wouldn't remain. I would have to leave. I was in shock."
Alderman Tunney's office has said repeatedly that it is not in any position to get involved in the disputes between M&R and the current business on Clark Street. Deputy Alderman Bennett Lawson, on behalf of Alderman Tunney, said that their office has not been a part of the negotiations. While they "obviously do not want to lose iO and other the businesses," they are not in a position to force anyone's hand.
Halpern also pointed out that years ago Alderman Bernie Hansen, former alderman of the same ward, once had a similar dispute regarding the Jane Adams Hull House, and was able to mediate the situation to ensure everyone was treated fairly. Unfortunately for her and others on the strip, Tunney is not as cooperative. "He is the alderman, it is absolutely his place to do that," she stated. "He would rather not get involved. He has not been receptive to business owners."
Proprietors like Halpern are not the only ones upset about the idea of losing these locations to a mall and hotel structure. Kevin Webber, a Mullen's Bar and Grill regular so familiar with the location he is on a first name basis with a number of the bartenders said he was, "Pissed. Couldn't be more pissed." He claimed, "This is one of the best and oldest neighborhoods in sports, why ruin it? Who wants a Best Buy?" A young Mullen's bartender who wished to remain nameless added, "People want a neighborhood. Who wants another mall?"
Chicagoans aren't the only ones who see the idea as harmful to the neighborhood. Michigan resident Kevin Hannigan has been frequenting the quaint Irish Oaks for over a decade, every time he comes to town to visit his son Mike to catch a Cubs game. "It's a shame to see it all change for the sake of the almighty dollar," he said. "It's sad to see a lack of concern for the fans."
His son, a Wrigleyville denizen for years, also thought the idea lacked concern for what the patrons of the neighborhood really wanted. "You can take the El two stops south for a Best Buy, why would anyone come here for that, especially after a game?" After meeting the woman he married for the first time in the neighborhood, they had their first date at Goose Island, an establishment they now frequent with their children. "The whole thing is stupid."
Other out-of-town patrons at the Irish Oak included two young college grads in the neighborhood to audition for the Rock of Ages musical. One of the girls, Maggie Gagliardi from Minnesota, also found the plan to be of little use to anyone who likes Wrigleyville for the neighborhood as it stands. "You don't get culture from hotels," she pointed out. "If you want a mall, come up to the Mall of America. We have a Legoland."
When asked if he was concerned about erasing a piece of history and culture from the neighborhood, Deputy Alderman Lawson dismissed the idea. The strip is "not the heart of the history of Lakeview. It's just a lot of parking spaces and restaurants."
Halpern said reopening the iO Theater in the new structure would be a remote possibility. Given the state of the economy and the down payments needed by banks for loans in situations like this, it would be nearly impossible for her. The same goes for Tunney's suggestion that she look into buying the Lakeshore Theater. "Really?" she asked, "Is he going to cosign the loan?"
When asked about further action and protests, Halpern said they are not done yet. "So much is going on. Over 7,000 people are against this thing and that's just in a few days. Tunney could still be a hero if he is smart. He can realize that we all love our neighborhood."