Retail therapy

Patrons enjoy a toast at the new bar, Nick's on Wilson, 1140 W. Wilson Ave.

See also: New construction is being added to area conversions 

New restaurants, retail, nightlife create hotspots in Uptown, Edgewater

Story by Alison Soltau  |  Photography by Jim Newberry

Decades ago, builders and landlords tried to use Truman College as a springboard for revitalizing a rough patch of Uptown. Plans called for rehabbing buildings around the school at 1145 W. Wilson Ave. and developing businesses that would cater to students, creating a symbiotic relationship between campus and the neighborhood.

Similar plans have worked in other locations, but 10 years after the idea hatched in Uptown, little had changed. Hookers and drug dealers peddled their wares brazenly on Wilson, directly across the street from Truman, which students entered and fled with the single-minded purpose of Navy Seals working behind enemy lines. The idea that significant numbers of them might linger after class to drink coffee, eat a sandwich or share a pitcher of beer was preposterous.

Fast forward another decade, though, to 2007, and the plan, or at least key parts of it, appear to be working. It’s much harder to buy drugs or sex on this stretch of Wilson Avenue, but if you’re in the market for an iced Frappuccino, a gourmet sub sandwich or a pint of microbrew, you’re in luck. Much of the distressed housing around the campus has been rehabbed, and a number of new masonry condo buildings have replaced empty lots and decrepit structures.

Similar changes are underway in a number of discrete commercial pockets in Uptown and Edgewater, Uptown’s neighbor to the north. The adjacent communities fill a prime chunk of Chicago’s north lakefront bounded on the north by Devon Avenue, on the east by the lake, on the south by Irving Park Road and on the west by Clark Street (south of Montrose) and Ravenswood Avenue (north of Montrose). Foster Avenue divides the two neighborhoods.

In Uptown and Edgewater, the commercial strips that have revived, or that show promise of reviving, include spots once among the most notorious in the area. Some still have a long way to go before clichés like “vital” and “thriving” get bandied about, but even these strips appear to be on track for luring new businesses to neighborhoods underserved by retail, restaurants and services.

The Metropolis Coffee Company, which opened in 2003 at 1039 W. Granville Ave., is popular with Edgewater locals.

Incremental change

What has spurred the changes? There’s no easy answer. Transportation and the foot traffic created by el stations on the Chicago Transportation Authority’s Red Line have been key to development in four of the five hotspots noted here – Wilson, Broadway and Lawrence, “Andersonville South,” Bryn Mawr and Granville. A couple of others have been able to piggyback on proximate institutional anchors (Truman College and Loyola University), and some are parlaying existing nightlife and restaurants into new growth.

Of course, in Chicago, politics plays its part. The role of tax-increment financing and of local aldermen and their evolving stances on development have been important factors, especially in Uptown.

New housing – the rehabs, condo conversions and new construction spurred by a decade-long real estate boom in Chicago – has been an important factor too. Commercial development tends to lag residential, and in Uptown and Edgewater, new housing has come in a slow, steady, often controversial march. The new residents buying new condos, which have nicer finishes and higher price tags each year, have in these neighborhoods reached the sort of numbers that retailers notice.

Buyers, in turn, have banked on housing in Uptown and Edgewater appreciating at a good clip as the neighborhoods develop. In recent years they haven’t been disappointed. Uptown’s median condo price was $275,000 in 2006, up from $230,000 in 2003, according to Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois figures compiled by the Chicago Association of Realtors and real estate agent Killian Walsh of Century 21 S.G.R. Edgewater’s median condo price was $233,000 in 2006, up from $194,850 in 2004, and the median price of a single-family home was $598,000, up from $560,000 in the same period, according to CAR and Century 21’s Walsh.

Wilson wonders

At Nick’s on Wilson, a new bar across the street from Truman College and just west of the Wilson el station, hip twenty-somethings plug their iPods into the sound system and chill out as the music of Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys fills the room. It’s a dramatic change from the days when this space was home to the notorious Wooden Nickel tavern, where bullets sat lodged in the walls and drunks often came to blows in the bar or on the sidewalk out front.

Uptown's Kinetic Playground, 1113 W. Lawrence Ave., is a popular new music venue.

Nick’s is only the latest in a string of new businesses and developments that have helped transformed Wilson Avenue between Broadway and Clark streets. Starbucks, which has patio seating, and the chic Magnolia Café arrived as new condos were under construction across the street, the first businesses to signal a change. Now there’s also Jimmy John’s, a sandwich shop with outdoor seating; Unique So Chique Tea & Chocolate; and Curves, a women’s gym – among other new storefronts.

Students from Truman do linger these days, grabbing a beer at Nick’s or a sandwich at Jimmy John’s, walking to Starbucks between classes for coffee. The corner of Wilson and Broadway, in the shadow of the Wilson el stop, still looks grimy and tired, but it too is about to see major change. Within two years, the five-acre parcel that runs along the el tracks will be filled with an ambitious – and controversial – retail and residential project, Wilson Yard.

The project, part of a tax-increment financing district, will include a 180,000-square-foot Target store, 30,000 square feet of retail and offices, 98 units of affordable senior housing and 78 affordable apartments, according to developer Peter Holsten, president of Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation.
At press time, Holsten expected to complete construction in April on a new Aldi supermarket, which is underway near the existing Aldi. The developer says he will break ground on the residential buildings and the Target store in June. The entire project is slated for completion around April 2009. Holsten hopes to lure a fresh food market, a café, a sandwich store and a FedEx Kinko’s to the new commercial space.

A Starbucks is located on the ground floor of the Belle Shore Apartments, which has a distinct green art deco facade and has been thoroughly renovated.

Wilson Yard likely will bring new retailers to the area and spur the revitalization of the underutilized commercial space on the east side of Broadway, north of Montrose, according to Holsten. “I’ve been involved with the Uptown community since 1985, and I’ve seen some significant gentrification and some reasonable reinvestment in retail,” he says. “That reinvestment now is accelerating as the demographics of the community change, and a lot of new folks are coming in and demanding improvements, and I think that’s going to continue.”

A Broadway production

Just north of the Wilson Yard site, the wide intersection of Lawrence and Broadway streets and Racine Avenue marks a classic Chicago corner. Three of the city’s grandest theaters are here – the Riviera Theatre, the Aragon Ballroom and the Uptown Theatre – as well as its best-known jazz club, the Green Mill. Across the street from the Mill (and connected by underground tunnels from the days when Al Capone’s right-hand man owned the nightclub) stands the august Uptown Bank building. Look south and the vintage Goldblatt’s Building angles gracefully between Racine and curving Broadway.

Unfortunately, the entire intersection spent much of the last 30 years looking south. The theaters fell into disrepair (the Uptown is still shuttered despite a long campaign to renovate it), and other buildings became empty or underutilized.

Fortunes changed in 2004 when The Phoenix at Uptown Square development brought condos and retail, including a Borders bookstore, to the former Goldblatt’s department store at 4718 N. Broadway. Other retailers followed, including the popular Crew Bar and Grill, 4804 N. Broadway St., perhaps the city’s only gay sports bar. The chic Uptown Lounge, 1136 W. Lawrence Ave., replaced the Saxony Lounge, where patrons had to be buzzed in, and the 500-person nightclub The Kinetic Playground, 1113 W. Lawrence, has brought another music venue to the strip.

The Uptown entertainment district includes The Riviera Theatre.

The Uptown Bank building is now home to a Starbucks. Plans are also in the works for restoration of the historic, wildly ornate Uptown Broadway Building, 4701 N. Broadway. Developer Thad Wong plans to create a nightclub in the basement and a restaurant and retail on the first floor, with offices available for dentists, attorneys and other professionals.

The spate of development in this corner of Uptown has played off and boosted neighborhood stalwarts, such as the Green Mill, and the Aragon and Riviera, both of which host large rock concerts. Uptown’s newest entertainment venue is the offbeat Annoyance Theatre, which opened last summer at 4840 N. Broadway St. in the former Heilig-Meyers Co. furniture store, now a handsome loft condo conversion.

Several new restaurants also have opened near the intersection, feeding off the theaters and bars, and drawing diners in their own right. The contemporary sushi creations at Agami, 4712 N. Broadway St., have been getting rave reviews, as have the lavish décor. Marigold, 4839 N. Broadway St., is a newer addition, and also takes a distinctly contemporary twist on traditional cuisine – in this case, Indian. At Leland and Broadway, around the corner from Borders, a new health club, Body Fit Athletic Club, and a new pet grooming shop, Soggy Paws, have given the once edgy block a friendlier face.

The cluster of theaters, new shops and bars haven’t returned this corner to its glory days or completely sanitized it (many would argue that they shouldn’t). Outside the Annoyance Theatre, two beat cops chat with a stranger about the changes. Rising property values have stabilized Uptown, they say, but drug dealing, gang activity and public drinking remain problems in some spots. As if on cue, the harried owner of a nearby pizza joint darts up to complain about a drunken customer. In minutes, nine cops swarm the eatery. The drunk takes stock of his situation and leaves.

The Bryn Mawr Deli, 1101 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., is one of many new convenience businesses in the Bryn Mawr Historic District.

Andersonville South

Andersonville, with its trendy boutiques, bars and restaurants, is the commercial heart of the larger Edgewater neighborhood. It stretches from Foster Avenue to Bryn Mawr Avenue and still contains remnants of its Swedish roots – the Swedish Bakery, the Swedish American Museum, Svea restaurant and Simon’s Tavern. Middle Eastern and Asian businesses also figure prominently in the neighborhood’s diverse make-up, which includes lesbians, gays, students, young professionals and families.

“Some members of the gay and lesbian community are concerned about being priced out by straight white families,” artist Christina Judge says. She’s sitting at Hamburger Mary’s, which opened last year at 5400 N. Clark St. Steel Magnolias plays silently on the TV, Liza belting out a Cabaret number on the stereo for background. Last year, Judge and her girlfriend moved south of Foster Avenue, the dividing line between Uptown and Edgewater, in search of cheaper rent.

To Judge’s delight, Clark’s lively retail and restaurant scene – pioneered in no small degree by the gay and lesbian community – also has been pushing south of Foster, into Uptown. Some of the new shops are anchoring condo developments along North Clark, where the 5000 to 5200 blocks are home to new arrivals Sir Spa, Borderline Music, Sine Qua Non Salon, Jimmy John’s, Foursided Custom Framing and Baan, an Asian-inspired home furnishings store.

This was a barren, nondescript strip not long ago, with the exceptions of La Donna Italian restaurant; Tokyo Marina; Konak’s, an actor-friendly, Swedish-looking, Turkish-owned bar; and the Hopleaf, a Chicago favorite that built it’s reputation on fine Belgian beers and has since added a small gourmet menu. The new restaurants and shops have added to this base and helped to change the flavor of these blocks south of Foster – and now claimed by Andersonville.

T’s Bar and Restaurant, 5025 N. Clark St., helped the transformation along, adding a large friendly establishment with outdoor seating to an otherwise dull block.
Uptown's Hutchinson Street is home to palatial mansions near the lake.

A little farther south on Clark, the cuteness factor diminishes substantially. St. Boniface Cemetery, a dollar store and an auto repair shop create dead space on the streetscape (pun intended) and there’s little foot traffic. Just north of Lawrence, though, Rainbo Village, a new 127-unit condo and townhouse project, is brightening the south end of the strip (see sidebar). 

And south of Rainbo Village, four major condo projects with 230 residential units and ground-floor retail signal the start of changes on a stretch of North Clark dominated by wholesalers. With Wrigleyville to the south and Andersonville to the north, some observers say, it’s only a matter of time until the remaining wholesalers sell out to developers.

Bryn Mawr history

The Bryn Mawr commercial strip in Edgewater is not quite Andersonville, but the historic district has a charm of its own. Period lampposts, neighborhood banners and fresh streetscaping separate it immediately from the bland highway-like streets that define it – Sheridan on the east and Broadway on the west.

From the Egyptian frieze, green terra cotta tiles and Art-Nouveau figures of the Belle Shore Apartments, 1062 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., to the grand Tudor Revival design of Manor House, 1021 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., the character of the architecture gave the street great potential.

The progressive bookstore, Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., is an Andersonville institution.

As with the Lawrence and Wilson pockets in Uptown, a CTA el stop and the foot traffic it provides also have been important parts of bringing in new businesses. Edgewater is the densest neighborhood in Chicago, and even if mean income levels aren’t high, there still is enough disposable income in the community to interest business owners, given the right conditions.

The Edgewater Development Corporation worked to create those conditions on Bryn Mawr, focusing on the street as a model for rejuvenating neighborhood commercial space. The group worked with the community and alderman to have the area declared a historic district and to create a tax-increment financing district that would spur development.

Major renovations and new management at two large, affordable buildings that had been sources of trouble – the Belle Shore Apartments and Edgewater Beach Apartments – went a long way toward reviving the street (Holsten, developer of Wilson Yard, has earned high praise for turning the buildings around). An improved look and a new identity gave the EDC some hooks to pull in new businesses, and the Francesca’s family of restaurants took a chance on the location, opening Francesca’s Bryn Mawr, 1039 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Like the upscale bike shop Johnny Sprocket’s and the Starbucks, which both opened in the renovated Belle Shore, Francesca’s proved a catalyst for the street.

The chic Marigold Indian Restaurant opened recently at 4832 N. Broadway St.

Recent additions on Bryn Mawr include Flourish Bakery Café, Salon Echo, Habeebi’s Restaurant, That Little Mexican Café, Ben’s Noodles & Rice, a Chase branch and Hellas Gyros. The only vacant spot on the strip is slated for a new Nookies diner, according to Adam Burck, executive director of the Edgewater Development Corporation.

These new arrivals couldn’t come soon enough for neighborhood residents, some of whom were drawn to the area by a surge of conversions and new-construction condo projects during recent years. Computer programmer Harry McClellon, who recently bought a unit at the new Catalpa Gardens Condominiums, 1122 W. Catalpa Ave., says he’s excited about having Flourish Bakery Café, which landed on Bryn Mawr last year, virtually on his doorstep. “The neighborhood was never bad,” McClellon says. “But now it has so much more.”

Community leaders hope that The Granville, an 11-story mixed-use development, will spur new retail on Granville Avenue and Broadway Street.

Granville improving

If Bryn Mawr is no Andersonville, Granville is no Bryn Mawr. Which is not to say that it couldn’t be some day. Already, the street is safer, cleaner and less scary than it once was between Broadway and Sheridan.

“People used to hate going to Granville because the main businesses there were the liquor stores and some other very very unsuccessful businesses,” Burck says. “When Metropolis opened, people all of a sudden said, ‘oh my God, there are people like me on Granville – it’s not just people looking for cheap liquor.'”
Metropolis, 1039 W. Granville Ave., was so successful that the young shop expanded when space next door became available. In addition to roasting its own coffee, Metropolis hosts movie nights, art exhibitions, readings and other community events. Nearby residents are fiercely loyal to the business, which also draws heavily from Loyola University.

Loyola, often thought of as a Rogers Park institution, actually has more students living in Edgewater than in Rogers Park. Many of them use the Granville el stop, and concerned about safety, the school opened a security outpost on the street. Granville is still far from a bustling street, but it’s clearly perceived as safer.
At the west end of the strip, Trivoli Café and Restaurant recently opened in the old Café du Monde space, at 1147 W. Granville Ave., and just east of there, the Gerber / Hart Library, 1127 W. Granville, is a pillar of the gay community. As in Andersonville, which has priced many out of the neighborhood, gay and lesbian residents are playing an active role in resurrecting Granville and Bryn Mawr. If the Starbucks logo is the most obvious sign of urban gentrification these days, many think the rainbow isn’t far behind.

The project many are expecting to propel this strip forward is The Granville, an 11-story new-construction building by Access Group Chicago that will stretch nearly a block along Broadway Street and front Granville as well. The project, which broke ground in January, will include eight floors of condominiums, two levels of parking and ground-floor retail anchored by Staples. The Granville side of the commercial space will include smaller retailers.

“This is the kind of jumpstart that will help move that area along,” Burck says. “The community is crying out for it.”

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