DECATUR — City leaders said they hoped to bolster the city’s rough financial position by approving a new shopping center and Chipotle Mexican Grill on Decatur's north side, despite neighbors’ passionate objections.
The Decatur City Council voted 5-2 to rezone 1.6 acres at the southwest corner of U.S. Business 51 and West Ash Avenue for the 10,400-square-foot development. The decision upset the dozens of residents in attendance, who stressed concerns about traffic, safety, quality of life and property values.
“It’s not easy. It’s never easy,” Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe told the packed council chambers before the vote. “I look at the times this community has said no to things, and what did that get us?”
Council members are staring down a $3.2 million budget deficit this year. City officials have said changes in state law and stagnant sales tax revenue are among the major sources of the gap.
The developer did not request tax incentives. City officials said they have not offered any, and none were included in the measure the council approved.
Moore Wolfe and council members Dana Ray, Chuck Kuhle, Lisa Gregory and David Horn voted in favor of the rezoning. Council members Bill Faber and Pat McDaniel voted against the plan.
Only one person who spoke told the council he was in favor of the proposal, citing the potential for construction jobs.
Among the affected residents were Judy and Bob Hohlbauch, who have lived in their home on West Oak Lane for 46 years and will live across from the development.
After the meeting, Judy Hohlbauch said she had predicted the council would approve the proposal, but she was still unhappy with the outcome.
For now, Holhbauch said the couple will stay at the home they’ve known for most of their adult lives.
“We’ll stay for awhile,” she said. “We’ll just have to see how things go.”
In remarks before the vote, the five council members suggested their support was not only about tax revenue for the city — it was also to promote progress and economic growth.
“I would rather fail by trying than fail by doing nothing,” Kuhle said, explaining his vote. “I strongly feel approving the zoning has the potential to benefit the city not only financially but so much more importantly through the creation of a mindset for the city’s younger population which we cannot afford to lose.”
Councilwoman Lisa Gregory said 2018 will not be “business as usual” for the council.
“There are going to be many other votes that follow this one where we will have entities asking us to provide support to them to events that many of you like to attend, and we will have to scrutinize those votes,” Gregory said. “For me it really is a matter of being a council that does the right thing for the budget as we move forward.”
The project, to be done by Northbrook-based developers GMX Real Estate, LLC, will include two restaurants, two retail stores and a medical office, according to city documents, and have 82 parking spaces.
No date has been set for construction to begin. Developers have said they plan to finish work by the end of this year.
Faber and McDaniel sympathized with the neighbors in the area, who said they were worried about traffic, safety and property values.
“We’re not going to be creating that much new sales tax to destroy a neighborhood,” McDaniel said, adding that the move would hurt an attractive entrance into the city.
Faber also found fault with the information city staff provided to the council ahead of the vote.
“What we have in our staff report is basically a cheerleading report for the project,” he said.
A poll posted at herald-review.com on Tuesday afternoon got 259 responses by 10 p.m., with 162 people saying the council should vote against the development, 90 saying the council should vote for the development, and 7 saying they didn't know or care.
Like many of the neighbors, Macky Spurlock said she was upset about additional traffic that will make Ash Avenue a “nightmare” and “hazardous” to those who live on it.
She said she was also upset that several questions have yet to be answered, such as what other tenants will be in the center.
“(The developers) cannot tell us about the rest of the development,” said Spurlock, who has lived at the corner of Ash Avenue and MacArthur Road for 42 years. “They cannot tell us who else is going to move in there.”
GMX’s co-manager Andrew Goodman left after the council’s vote and could not immediately be reached for comment. He has previously declined to identify what other businesses would be at the center, only saying they were focused on “family friendly” retailers and restaurants.
Goodman told the council that he has been in contact with several businesses interested in locating next to a Chipotle, none of which currently operate in Decatur.
“We have no interest in relocating one business from one corner to another,” he said.
The council approved an amendment by Horn to prohibit video gaming parlors at the center.
GMX representatives have said they were pointed to this site by Chipotle officials. The restaurant will be freestanding with a drive-through.
Entrances to the center would be off of West Oak Lane and West Ash Avenue.
Hours of operation would only be allowed from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., city staff said in a memo to council members.
Fourteen parking spaces on West Ash Avenue would be removed, a left turn lane into the shopping center would be added, and the bus stop would be moved. City staff said West Oak Lane would be strengthened, with curb and gutter added, to accommodate more traffic. Interim Public Works Director Matt Newell said GMX would cover the costs of infrastructure updates, with his office to supervise the work.
The vote went differently than the last time a developer eyed the high-traffic intersection. In 2015, the council rejected a rezoning proposal that would allow an Aldi grocery store to build on the site.
Gregory voted against Aldi but in favor of Tuesday night's proposal, in part because it did not involve relocating an existing business within the city. She and other council members said it will be important for the city to keep an eye on the development and make sure that traffic and drainage problems do not have a negative effect on the surrounding neighborhood.
After the meeting, Moore Wolfe said she was glad to finally have the issue resolved, as she said developers have been approaching the city for years in hopes of developing at the intersection.
“This was never going to go away,” she said, adding that restaurants and retailers are preferable to having a grocery store or gas station at the site.
She did not rule out the possibility that Chipotle could spark further commercial development near the intersection.
“If it’s as successful as we’re hoping it is ... we’ll just wait and see,” she said.
Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect the number of parking spaces that will be removed.