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Old Posted May 30, 2006, 10:34 AM
Frankie Frankie is offline
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Cicero Avenue about to take off?
May 30, 2006
BY DAVID ROEDER Business Reporter Advertisement

As a showcase for Chicago, Cicero Avenue just doesn't cut it.

The stretch of Cicero between the Stevenson Expy. and Midway Airport is one of the city's most heavily traveled arteries, with some 65,700 vehicles per day. It's the route Midway's arriving passengers take to get downtown and points beyond.

Cicero could exude a warm welcome. But right now, it's as if visitors to Chicago arrived through the host's broken-down back porch.

Parcels are empty, and some storefronts are neglected. Cheap motels overlook junkyards. And the presence on the street of a public housing complex, LeClaire Courts, with many boarded up units, has its own deadening effect.

Midway is a busy airport, so where's the economic spinoff? Drive south of the airport on Cicero and you encounter the Midway Hotel Center, a spic-and-span collection of seven national chains with parking all around. It's in Bedford Park, so none of its tax revenue goes to the city. Bedford Park also has drawn "big box" retailers nearby such as Wal-Mart and Costco.

Chicago officials hope to catch up with the tiny southwest suburb. Last year, consultants working for the city's Department of Planning and Development analyzed the Cicero corridor, and recommended an action plan. The agency is in the early stages of following up.

"Bedford Park has always had a mindset to catch the retail bleed from Chicago," said James Capraro, a co-author of the report and executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corp. He said the city must work with private investors to make its part of Cicero a destination.

Connie Buscemi, spokeswoman for the planning department, said the street was among several sites the city touted during a recent retail industry convention in Las Vegas. "It attracted a lot of interest. The street is widely traveled, and delivers great exposure. This is what retailers are looking for," she said.

She said the city has held conversations with several developers. One, Centrum Properties, plans a commercial makeover at the northwest corner of Archer and Cicero, Buscemi said. Also, the city has solicited offers for two largely vacant parcels it owns or is acquiring.

They are at 4730 and 6401 S. Cicero. Bid documents state a preference for retail or some other commercial use on the sites, and response deadlines are in mid- to late-July. The properties are each about 32,000 square feet, and carry asking prices of $1.1 million to $1.3 million.

A Starbucks sits at 4701 S. Cicero, a rare outpost for the coffee chain in a working-class neighborhood. But redeveloping the stretch has many challenges.

The city consultants' report said the Cicero strip is plagued by properties that are too small for large-scale improvements. Many are only 100 feet deep, and going back farther would require buying homes. Other issues include the typical urban redevelopment ills -- too many landowners who would inflate asking prices on a speculative whim.

People living in homes near Cicero have relayed rumors that the city wants to buy their properties, either for commercial improvements or airport expansion. City officials emphatically deny that they want to buy homes for any reason.

Capraro said city planners should concentrate on two properties near the corridor's north and south ends. One is just off Cicero and includes a scrap yard and truck parking, while the other is the Midway Business Center, an industrial complex at the southwest corner of Cicero and Archer.

The report said the 1-million-square-foot business center was 60 percent vacant in 2004 because heavy traffic on Cicero made truck access difficult. Capraro said the industrial tenants could be moved near the expressway while the business center could become an upscale hotel next to the airport.

The business center's owner is Sue Gin, real estate entrepreneur and chairman of Flying Food Fare Inc. She said the complex is only about 10 percent vacant now, but that she's open to working with the city on a hotel redevelopment.

"That would be great if that could happen," Gin said. "I really believe that property has a higher and better use."

She said she has built flexibility into her leases so she could relocate if the right offer came along. Gin said she last discussed the property with the city about two years ago and that personnel changes at the planning department have bogged down progress on the issue.

In 2001, Gin and city officials struck a deal for her site to become an employee training center for American Trans Air Inc., a project that promised 2,500 jobs. The travel slump after 9/11 caused ATA to back out, and the airline filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

The other piece vital to Cicero improvements is Le Claire Courts at 43rd Street. The town-house-style project has been a relatively low priority in the CHA's "plan for transformation," the redevelopment of its properties into mixed-income areas.

CHA spokeswoman Karen Pride said the complex totals 616 units, of which 373 are occupied. She said all options are being considered for the property, but offered no timetable for a decision.

The Cicero corridor is a tax-increment financing district, which gives the city a way to finance public improvements. Money from the TIF also could be used to acquire property by eminent domain.

Other contributors to the consultants' study included URS Corp., Goodman Williams Group and Gonzalez Hasbrouck Architects. It concluded that hotels and new retail offered the best potential for Cicero.

It identified limited demand for office space, noting that because Midway is a point-to-point airport, it lacks O'Hare Airport's appeal for corporate headquarters



Why doesn't South Cicero Avenue, the Midway Airport access route, look the way Rosemont does for cuddling up to O'Hare?

James Capraro, executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corp., said one answer goes back to the 1970s. It's the plan for the old Crosstown Expy., which would have run right up Cicero.

Capraro said the city's Crosstown plan froze private investment. "The motels on Cicero didn't used to be fleabag,'' he said. "After the Crosstown was announced, they became fleabag."

The plan died, but the air of disinvestment lingered. And the street and other neighborhood business strips suffered again when Midway Airlines closed in 1991, said Anita Cummings, executive director of the United Business Association of Midway.

Southwest Airlines took up the slack, but it took a while for the city's No. 2 airport to fully rebound. And the travel downturn after Sept. 11, 2001 squelched some private investment.

Cummings said whenever Midway Airport suffers, local business feels it immediately. For all the complaints about noise and traffic, the downturns "make people realize just how important that airport is to the Southwest Side," Cummings said.
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