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Gentrification Fears On The 606 Raised By Possible Loss Of Industrial Properties

The opening of The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail in 2015 touched off raucous debates about gentrification in the surrounding residential markets. The trail replaced an abandoned railway that industrial businesses once used to ship goods in and out. On the trail’s affluent east side, most of these properties were transformed years ago into high-end, loft-style homes, but industrial properties still dot portions of the 2.7-mile-long trail’s western half.

Several recently changed hands, reigniting the debate about whether their redevelopment is healthy progress or a concerning redefinition of a neighborhood. 

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

The industrial buildings could be redeveloped eventually to provide creative office space or new amenities for thousands of neighborhood residents or bikers and runners along the trail.

“There isn’t a single place west of Western Avenue where people can get off The 606 and have a beer or get a coffee,” developer Nick Stocking said.

But in a debate that echoes the controversies over rising housing prices, other advocates worry the moves could end up displacing needed jobs and community-oriented tenants on the Northwest Side.

In December Stocking bought 1757 North Kimball Ave., a low-slung Humboldt Park building adjacent to The 606, for $3.5M. Charles Rizzo, the former owner, a local businessman and arts patron, transformed the 48K SF former plastic injection molding facility more than a decade ago into the Kimball Arts Center, an affordable space with an eclectic tenant roster, which now includes an architectural and design firm, band rehearsal spaces, an archery range and a bookstore, among many others.

The sale of this community mainstay raises a red flag, said Ben Helphand, co-founder and board president of Friends of Bloomingdale Trail, an all-volunteer organization.

“It’s been troubling to many people in the community, because so many families have already been displaced, and now cultural institutions may be displaced as well,” he said.

Helphand’s children attended classes at KAC’s Quilombo Cultural Center, which teaches martial arts and music.

“That one really hits home for me, not just because of my kids, but because they opened up the school to dozens of community meetings,” he said.

Stocking said such anxieties are misplaced. For one thing, he has only owned the property for a few weeks. More importantly, he considers himself a community-oriented developer.

“Charlie did a great job curating this group of tenants, and he wanted to sell it to someone who would work to retain the building’s creative ethos,” he said. “My idea is not to clear out the building and maximize the dollars. This is not Lincoln Park.”

At the same time, that doesn’t mean each of the roughly dozen tenants will stay, and Stocking said after evaluating the new purchase, he will have to strike a balance between maintaining affordability, the needs of the community and the expense of renovating the aging structure, including ensuring its systems are up to code.

“We need to find a balance between what the community wants, with what is viable from a business perspective.”

Other nearby properties also recently changed hands. Across the street from Kimball Arts Center, a similar building at 1750 North Kimball Ave. was owned by Frank Lopez, a well-known local businessman famous for his home on Logan Boulevard, which he lit up brilliantly every Christmas season. He died in 2019 and the building was sold for $2.1M to IBF Property Management, according to CoStar.

Jonny Ifergan at Kimball Arts Center, 1757 North Kimball Ave.

The toy manufacturer Playskool once owned 1750 North Lawndale, a 48K SF factory located a few blocks west, where decades ago workers fashioned Lincoln Logs. In 2015, the vacant structure was bought by Don Glisovich, a local real estate agent, and several partners, for $850K, according to Cook County records. He planned to recruit tenants such as a brewery, a bike shop and other businesses that would serve trail users, but eventually abandoned them and in 2017 sold the building for $2.2M. The new owners, a group led by suburban developer Martin Taradejna, have said they will transform it into a self-storage facility.

Other nearby industrial buildings sit vacant, but some, like 1801 North Central Park Ave., a three-story, 59K SF factory occupied by century-old family business Orlandi Statuary, still hum with activity each workday. The building was last purchased in 1998 for $390K, according to county records.

If redevelopment happens on the west side, it is going to take time, according to SVN Chicago Commercial Senior Vice President Wayne Caplan. Most of these properties retain their industrial zoning classification, which would need changing before serious renovations could occur.

Activists’ greatest worry about Kimball Arts Center is its C1-2 zoning designation, something Rizzo secured years ago. That means the new owner could put in more ground-floor retail, or even demolish the structure and replace it with an apartment building, according to Caplan, who represented Rizzo in the sale.

But the newest addition to the KAC will be a brewpub called Orkenoy. Jonny Ifergan, a musician and co-owner, said he and his partner Ryan Sanders chose to open the new business there prior to the building’s recent sale, and don’t fear possible upcoming changes.

“They’ve been listening to, and meeting with, all of the tenants, and want to maintain its integrity,” he said.

Establishing their new pub in a multiuse community like KAC, rather than more traditional retail space, was important, he added, because it can become both a business and a gathering space, especially for touring musicians.

“It may come from my background as a musician, and spending so much time practicing in such spaces, but you meet people from all walks of life.”

And although some people see brewpubs, yoga studios and coffee shops as the leading edge of gentrification, Ifergan said that won’t be the case with Orkenoy.

“When you own a brewpub, that understandably can be looked at in a lot of ways, but our purpose is to still act as a meeting place, not displace anybody, and continue to serve the community.”

Kimball Arts Center, 1757 North Kimball Ave.

With the help of Range Design & Architecture, a design firm in the building, the partners built out what had been a raw space, and hope to open in the spring, serving both food and Ifergan’s homemade brews.

Ifergan said some change is inevitable, as the aging structure needs work, and that may mean the new landlord needs at least some tenants that can pay higher rents.

“At the end of the day, it’s a business, and you have to make money to pay the mortgage,” he said.

Eventually, Ifergan hopes traffic drawn by Orkenoy will bring other businesses to Kimball.

“The goal is not to put a Boost Mobile here, or anything like that,” he said. He envisions things like a bike shop that can draw in customers from The 606.

“We want to see some of the cool stuff you can already find east of California Avenue.”

Caplan said that because developers have already filled the streets up and down the trail with new and redeveloped homes and apartments, many geared toward higher-income residents, the Humboldt Park area will inevitably attract new retail.

The KAC already has ground-floor retail. For Dogs Sake, a pet supply warehouse that ships product nationwide, welcomes walk-in customers, and Caplan expects to soon see more stores like it.

“I think you will continue to see creative tenants in the Kimball Arts Center, but I also think that over time, as the neighborhood evolves, there will need to be more mixed-use development, including more neighborhood-oriented retail,” Caplan said.

But more mixed-use development could come with a price, he added.

“More buildings like the Kimball Arts Center will get improved over time, if not demolished or completely gutted.”

That is what most worries Helphand, and it is not a concern in just one neighborhood.

“The rising prices for industrial properties is something which is happening across the Northwest Side, so it’s a much bigger issue and it wasn’t caused solely by the Bloomingdale Trail,” he said. “I’m hearing rumblings about this from people in Avondale and Hermosa.“

If employers end up leaving the city, it will make it more difficult for moderate-income residents to reach their jobs, and possibly further fuel the gentrification well underway in these housing markets, he added.

If employers do vacate industrial buildings, Helphand said the city should consider stepping in, the way it has with the former Magid Glove Factory at 3645 West Cortland Ave. on the trail’s western end.

The company left its sprawling, one-story building years ago, and sold it in 2014 to The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that was going to demolish the structure and create a four-acre park.   

Those plans fell through due to the state of Illinois’ budget impasse, according to a TPL spokesperson, but the city recently agreed to buy the factory and replace it with a combination of affordable housing and a park, although planning is still in the early stages.

“We need to start planning now to secure these properties for nonprofits and community groups so 10 years down the road we’re not kicking ourselves,” Helphand said.