New chamber discusses bike lanes, stalled project





by BRIAN NADIG

Concerns about the installation of dedicated bike lanes on Milwaukee Avenue and the status of a stalled redevelopment project at 4747 W. Irving Park Road were raised at the Nov. 16 meeting of the newly formed Six Corners Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier this year, 92 on-street parking spaces were removed to allow for dedicated bike lanes on Milwaukee between Irving Park Road and Addison Street. A city Department of Transportation study in 2016 found that parking along both sides of that stretch of Milwaukee was about 50 percent underutilized.

The bike lanes were approved as part of the 45th Ward’s participatory budget vote in 2015, but at the time plans had called for the use of marked shared lanes for cars and bikes in areas where the roadway could not accommodate dedicated bike lanes of at least 4 1/2 feet in width.

Chamber founder Joe Angelastri said that the parking removal seemed unusual given that the Six Corners Master Plan, which was created in 2013, concluded that Milwaukee was too narrow to accommodate dedicated bike lanes.

"It was unnecessary to have dedicated bike lanes when shared bike lanes can do the same thing," he said.

The Six Corners Association, which is the service provider for a local taxing body for the commercial area, supported the bike lane installation as part of its efforts to improve accessibility for all modes of transportation. The new chamber was formed by merchants who have expressed concern that the area needs a stronger focus on economic development.

Some of the parking removal occurred in front of a development site at the southeast corner of Milwaukee and Irving Park, where a former Bank of America building was demolished. "What if some of the (prospective retail) tenants require parking in front of their store," Angelastri said.

Alderman John Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh said in an interview that there are only a couple of businesses along the affected stretch of Milwaukee but if stores open as part of a new development, the impact of the bike lanes would be reexamined.

"If conditions change, it’s just paint (on the roadway). We’ll look at it," Brugh said.

In the meantime, the bike lanes provide a safer route for bicyclists to reach Six Corners, Brugh said. One merchant reported at the meeting that he has customers who use the new bike lanes, Brugh said.

A one-story retail complex with rooftop parking had been planned for the former bank site, but 8 months ago the city voided a construction permit for the project due to inactivity. No new plans have been announced for the site.

"There are a lot of options on the table," Brugh said of the site’s redevelopment. He added that the developer, Clark Street Real Estate, could choose to have its permit reinstated and starting building immediately.

Funds from the Portage Park Tax Increment Financing District, whose balance was listed as $12.887 million as of Dec. 31, 2016, could be used to facilitate the site’s redevelopment, Angelastri said. Clark Street initially sought TIF subsidies for the project, but none were allocated for the retail center plan.

Brugh said that the alderman supports the use of TIF funds for schools and other public infrastructure projects but that TIF funds will only be allocated for those private developments that demonstrate a clear public benefit. He said that TIF funds were awarded to the redevelopment of a building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road because the owner agreed to preserve a second-floor auditorium as a community theater.

TIF funds in the 45th Ward will not be awarded for the purposes of increasing the profits of Clark Street or any other developer in the area, Brugh said.

Meanwhile, the chamber is encouraging that the commercial district’s redevelopment follow the guidelines set forth in the master plan since it was based on the general consensus of the community on a number of issues, Angelastri said.

The plan recommends a four- or five-story building on the former bank site that is similar to the height and scale of the Sears department store at 4730 W. Irving Park Road and the Klee Plaza at 4001-15 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Several additional large redevelopment projects could materialize for Six Corners in the next few years. While Sears remains open for business, the building is for lease, and Peoples Gas is relocating its North Shop facility at 3955 N. Kilpatrick Ave. to a 9.43-acre industrial site at 4025 W. Peterson Ave.

The alderman encourages any developer to consider carefully the design guidelines in the master plan, Brugh said. For the 6.5-acre Peoples Gas site, the master plan envisions several scenarios: two 23,000-square-foot commercial buildings, one 65,000-square-foot big-box retailer or a series of multi-family buildings of three- or four-stories each situated around a plaza

Over the next few months the chamber’s Economic Development Committee will be exploring ways to fulfill the goals of the master plan, including the need to attract more retailers to the area, Angelastri said. The number of vacancies on Irving Park between Sears and Lavergne Avenue has increased from 17 to 22 in the past five years, he said.

Brugh said that the area has welcomed two new stores, Fischman Bottle Shop at 4054-60 N. Milwaukee Ave. and District Bath and Body at 4046 N. Milwaukee Ave., in recent weeks. He said that Six Corners has created a niche for independent business in which the owners often live in the area, making them "doubly invested" in the district’s success.

The chamber’s committee also will be examining whether the life of the Portage Park and Irving-Cicero TIF districts, which both expire in the next few years, should be extended, Angelastri said. TIF funds are accrued when a municipality diverts the tax revenue generated from increases in the assessed valuation of properties within a defined area to a special account that is intended for public and private infrastructure projects.

The chamber also may help to pursue National Register of Historic Places status for some area buildings, including the Portage Theater at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., which is a city landmark. Owners of a National Register property can seek federal tax credits to cover a portion of a building’s rehabilitation expenses.