City Council Looks to Next Phase of Downtown Development

With a sale to Chase Bank pending, the City Council discussed how to move forward on the rest of its downtown properties.

As an official deal with Chase Bank nears, the is now looking ahead to what will happen next with the rest of the property area along Cass Avenue between 75th Street and Plainfield Road.

Discussion of the downtown business district consumed nearly two-thirds of Wednesday's three-and-a-half-hour goal-setting session as the council conferred on the challenges associated with developing the land.

The City Council is set to vote Monday on a contract with Chase for the sale of 7501 Cass Ave., which leaves two other city-owned properties up for grabs in the district: the strip of shops known as Heritage Plaza and land at the corner of Plainfield and Cass that once housed a BP station.

Darien assumed responsibility for the parcels of land in the business district through a series of purchases from December 2006 to September 2008. The purchases were part of a long-term downtown redevelopment plan launched after a 2002 update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. 

Originally the plan called for the redevelopment of the entire triangle enclosed by Cass, Plainfield and 75th. In June 2004, the city scaled back the plan to include just the properties bordering the east side of Cass Avenue. 

Chase signed a letter of intent in February stating its desire to buy 7501 Cass Ave. for $2 million. The bought the property, formerly occupied by a Shell gas station, for about $1.6 million in 2006. A 2006 appraisal valued the vacant lot at about $1.2 million. 

If City Council approves the contract with Chase on Monday, the bank will have 210 days to tie up remaining issues, such as environmental testing, before it must close on the sale.

Economic considerations

Community Development and Municipal Services Director Dan Gombac said he’s aggressively marketed the other two properties to restaurants such as Corner Bakery, Cheesecake Factory and Luigi’s, an offshoot of Portillo’s. 

“The feedback I’ve gotten is the restaurant market is very, very tough to break into, especially today,” he said. Several of the restaurants requested incentives of up to $1 million to develop the property, he said. 

There’s also the matter of working with neighboring businesses such as Buona Beef, just north on Cass, and , which is about half a mile east on Plainfield.

If another fast-food burger joint comes in, Gombac said, you’re just exchanging dollars for dollars.

City Administrator Bryon Vana said the city is looking at a mixture of businesses for the land, noting the profitability of dry cleaners and grocery stores.

Several aldermen, including Sylvia McIvor, Halil Avci and Tina Beilke, recommended forming a citizens committee to help brainstorm ideas for the development.

“We’re not doing enough seeking input from residents,” Avci said. “This is an opportunity just to get some ideas as to what sort of business they think would be appropriate for the land.”

Vana cautioned that the economy, rather than resident opinion, will largely dictate what kind of businesses will ultimately come to Darien. The variety of thoughts, however, would be good for the council to consider, he said. 

After the City Council approves a contract with Chase, Vana said the city will erect a sign on the remaining properties so as to attract developers. He said the city will also pursue some minor improvements to the vacant lots, such as installing sod. 

Lingering hesitations

Four of the six aldermen present at Wednesday’s session said they were comfortable with the sale of the land to Chase. Aldermen Tina Beilke and Joerg Seifert said they had some reservations about the deal. Alderman Joe Marchese was absent from the meeting. 

Beilke said she would like to see the city put out another request for proposals from professional developers before finalizing a sale to Chase. 

“If it were professionally brokered, there could have been more bids,” she said. “Without that component to it, it could feel like it was settling.”

Chase Bank was part of one developer’s 2009 concept for the property, Vana said. Darien has been working to broker a deal with Chase ever since the city decided against that developer’s overall vision. 

Seifert said he was uncomfortable with the idea of developing one property independently of the other two.

He reiterated his concern from the Nov. 7 city council meeting that a could impact the value of the other two properties.

A drive connecting Plainfield with the parking lots has always been part of the plan for the development, Vana said.

City attorney John Murphey said he renegotiated language in the contract with Chase so the city has full say in where along Plainfield that drive will go.

Chase has also agreed to change the language in the contract so it prevents only other retail banks from operating on other parts of the property.

Aldermen shared concerns at the Nov. 7 meeting that the original language prohibiting “full-service financial institutions” was too broad and could keep out businesses such as insurance agencies.

Barry Allen November 21, 2011 at 05:46 PM
Scott, you're absolutely right. My understanding was that Darien was getting into the real estate business solely because they were the only party that would acquire all three parcels and combine them into a single uniform development. The city spent a lot of time and effort selling the taxpayers that this was appropriate. The concept of a "down town" gathering place is something Darien lacks. It was that vision that was documented in the RFP for developers ( it was still available this morning at http://www.darien.il.us/ShopandDine/RFP_DowntownDevelopment.pdf ). With a new Chase bank I will have FOUR branches within three miles of my house. I really only need 1. Two are convenient. Three or more just becomes the punch line to a local joke (how many Chase banks does it take to cash a check?). I don't give most of the city council members credit for the vision it will take to do this right. I mentioned my thoughts to one. He just replied to the effect that "But, we're getting a really good price for the land". I will be pleasantly surprised if a majority vote NO. Even more surprised if they decide to actively market that original vision rather than just shelve it for another 18 months.
Scott C. November 21, 2011 at 06:44 PM
Agreed Barry. And I would submit that if they sell off this one parcel with myopically short sighted goals in mind, they can no longer actually market the original vision at all. And history will look back at this time as the last best chance Darien had to achieve the goal of something even close to a downtown. And that would be a real shame.
Adam West November 21, 2011 at 07:51 PM
You are correct Scott in mentioning short cited goals. I read that the sale of the property to Chase was for around 1.9 million. Which is far more than others had offered. But the problem with that is once that money is spent, that is it. No revenue aside from property taxes. At least with Sonic drive through there would have been sales tax accumulated which over time adds up. Honestly though I wouldn't have a problem with a bank if there wasn't already a bank 500 feet away.
John Dvorak November 26, 2011 at 03:55 AM
Any chance of getting a Tilted Kilt where the video store next to Sears was?
jim Prueter March 20, 2012 at 07:46 PM
a Tilted kilt ? straight lace and high button shoes is more likely. and it would take another three yeare to determine what to do or not to do. but then again the turtle may win.


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