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Community-Oriented Developer 'Sticks To His Guns' On Filling A Neighborhood Mainstay

When Nick Stocking bought the Kimball Arts Center just off The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail at 1757 North Kimball Ave. in 2019, it touched off concerns that gentrification was taking another bite out of the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods.

The previous owner had transformed the former plastic injection molding facility into a community-oriented affordable space for tenants like Quilombo Cultural Center, which taught martial arts and music to local children and families, and some local residents feared upscale users would take their places.

The 48K SF KAC is now 75% leased, and Stocking said such worries were misplaced. The new tenant roster adheres to his original concept of signing up creative entrepreneurs while not losing the space’s community orientation.

“We stuck to our guns,” he said. “Thankfully, the users have been out there and we haven’t had to change our vision. All of the businesses now here are owned by people who mostly live within five or 10 minutes of the building.”

Kimball Arts Center

Fears about gentrification are nothing new, especially along the 606. The 2.7-mile former railway was transformed in 2015 by the city into a park, bike and running trail, and is now mostly lined with new and redeveloped homes geared toward higher-income residents. That led the city council to place some restrictions on new development, and more controversies could erupt if similar plans go forward for the El Paseo Trail, a 4-mile former rail line that connects Pilsen and Little Village on the Southwest Side.    

But redevelopment efforts can both be successful and help local businesses sink roots in a community, according to Stocking, pointing to the KAC’s impending lease-up as proof.

“Many people don’t want to commute downtown, so clearly there is demand for workspaces that are more neighborhood-oriented,” he said.   

The cultural center had to leave, partly because the family that ran it was living in the space even though the KAC isn’t zoned for residential, Stocking added. And other tenants decided to leave or couldn’t afford the rents charged after his firm Stocking Urban and joint venture partner Gregory Robbins spent about $2M on an extensive rehab that brought the structure’s HVAC, plumbing, electrical and other systems up to code and created renovated common areas.  

“When we bought the building, we knew not every tenant would be able to stay, or be able to afford to stay, but my partner and I put in a lot of effort to finding community-based tenants,” Stocking said.    

Jennifer Shaffer

They held onto existing tenants such as Range Design & Architecture, Golden Hour Hair Co., a hairstylist, and For Dog’s Sake, a pet supply warehouse that ships product nationwide and welcomes walk-in customers, he added. During the 2020 Covid-19 shutdown, Dayglow Coffee opened a café on the ground floor, just across from Orkenoy, KAC’s new brewpub.

Tenants that moved in this year include Crop to Cup, a specialty coffee importer, and Jennifer Shaffer Photography, among others. Chicago Mobile Makers, a nonprofit that provides design workshops for children in low-income neighborhoods across the South and West Sides, will move into KAC this October.

The building’s community feel was one of its attractive features, according to Shaffer. Her space, roughly 450 SF, is smaller than her previous studio in Logan Square, but the KAC’s new common spaces more than make up for that.  

“I saved a ton of money and all of the tenants here are into collaboration,” she said. “It’s a lot different than other spaces I’ve rented, where you tend to just meet people in the hallways but there was no real collaboration. Here, we did a summer block party where we were able to open up the building and meet everyone in the neighborhood.”

The 606's Bloomingdale Trail and 1750 North Lawndale Ave.

“What I sell my clients on is the whole experience,” she added. “I tell them to make a day of it, and some coming for 20-minute sessions will stay for more than an hour, grab a beer or coffee, and take a walk on the 606.”   

Maya Bird-Murphy, an architectural designer who founded Chicago Mobile Makers in 2017, said KAC will provide the group with a much-needed hub. Staff and volunteers currently travel around to city schools in a renovated U.S. Postal Service van, teaching entry-level design, woodworking and other skills.

“It was always our plan to get a permanent space,” Bird-Murphy said.       

Being in a neighborhood where many of the students live was also important, she added. The organization will establish a classroom and event space at KAC, expanding the group’s offerings beyond entry-level workshops.

“We’re trying to equip young people with skills they can use and we could serve up to 1,000 per year once we’re up and running and build out our space,” Bird-Murphy said.       

Stocking said renovations on the building continue, and its empty spaces won’t be empty for long.

“We still have work to do, but we’re already in discussions for almost all of the space that’s left in the building," he said.