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.
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.
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.