DECATUR — Developers targeting the corner of U.S. Business 51 and West Ash Avenue declined to say Monday what businesses they hope to bring to the site, despite heated questioning from neighbors concerned about traffic and property values.
Representatives of Northbrook-based GMX Real Estate Group, LLC, which is seeking to rezone 1.6 acres near the high-traffic intersection, were vague when asked about potential retail tenants during and after an informal meeting they hosted at the Decatur Public Library.
Recent projects by the company include a Portillo’s restaurant in Homewood, McDonald’s in Danville and Downers Grove, and shopping centers in Homewood and Palatine.
GMX’s co-manager Andrew Goodman said after the meeting they have been speaking with several “family-friendly, quick-service restaurants” that want to be part of the proposed project, a 10,400-square-foot shopping center.
“We have some potential users that directed us to this location and said this would be a terrific location for them to locate their businesses,” Goodman said, adding they would be “sprinkled” into the development with family-friendly, non-gambling retail businesses. “But until we have firm commitments with binding leases, our edict is to not divulge too early who our clients may be.”
The Decatur City Council ultimately must approve rezoning that would allow the development, and a vote has not yet been scheduled. The project is hotly opposed by dozens of concerned residents, who spent more than an hour Monday night peppering the developers with questions about the project and how it will impact the surrounding neighborhood.
The sometimes-emotional rhetoric was similar to the last time a developer attempted to bring a commercial property to the area in the northern part of Decatur. In 2015, representatives from the Aldi grocery store chain looked to open a new location at the site. But after months of public hearings and petitions to stop the project, the council voted in October 2015 to reject the rezoning of the area for Aldi.
The corner is desirable to developers because of its high traffic count and location near other retail. Walgreen’s, Panera, Walmart and other businesses are across the highway.
But on the west side of U.S. Business 51 are well-established neighborhoods, many with residents who have lived there for decades and say they do not want the area disrupted by more retail, and the traffic it brings.
For some of them, the past few weeks have felt like déjà vu.
“It’s like the same thing over again,” said Pam Ambeau, who has lived at her home since 1977 and would live right next to the proposed development. "I just don't understand ... I guess it's suppose to help the Decatur economy, but to me it doesn't seem like much help when you're starting to go into the neighborhoods to have something built."
GMX sent letters, dated Nov. 9, to most of those who live in the area, informing them of the possible development and inviting them to Monday night’s meeting to learn more.
Even before the meeting, Julie Bresnan said she did not see much difference between this project and the failed Aldi one, which she also adamantly opposed. The concerns she had with Aldi, from increased traffic and negative impact on the property value of surrounding homes, were the same she said she had with the new project.
“You’re just adding more traffic to our street, and it’s already crazy enough, in my opinion,” said Bresnan, who has lived in her home, directly across the street from the planned development, since 1993.
The site of the total 1.6 acres planned for development includes four homes and an empty lot. If built, the shopping center would have space for two restaurants, two retailers and 82 parking spots.
Many residents questioned why GMX couldn’t choose another area for the project, pointing to areas such as the fields on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive behind Walmart, or empty storefronts in Brettwood Village or on Pershing Road.
“Why tear down a perfectly good neighborhood for this?” said Bob Hohlbauch after the meeting. Hohlbauch, along with his wife Judy, have lived in the neighborhood for 46 years and would live across from the facility’s dumpster as currently planned.
“Nothing has changed for the better, and there are several other places they can build this place.”
When asked after the meeting about considering other locations, Goodman said there likely is a reason the empty strip malls and undeveloped land in Decatur have stayed that way: their locations are no longer appealing for potential businesses. If the current plan is rejected, Goodman said his clients might walk away rather than look for another Decatur location.
“For some prospective businesses, this is a bullseye intersection, if you will,” he said.
GMX has already submitted a petition to rezone for planned development, said Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus. The item is expected to come before the city's Plan Commission at its Dec. 7 meeting. The commission will make a recommendation to the council, which will consider the matter at an unspecified time.
"We're in the process, and part of that process is working with and informing the public, hearing from the public, and going through the steps necessary to make a decision on it," Tyus said.
GMX representatives hoped to have final approval by the end of the year, though Goodman said after Monday’s meeting that they may push it back in order to address several of the issues brought up by residents.
Some changes could include enhanced landscaping and buffers between the businesses and surrounding residences and items such as barriers to better direct the flow of vehicles in and out of the parking lot.
As for how the possible development came about, Tyus said there has continued to be "significant interest" from developers for the site since the council voted down the Aldi project just over two years ago.
The council voted that plan down by a 4-3 vote, with former Councilman Chris Funk joining Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe and Councilwoman Dana Ray in support of the plan. Former Councilman Jerry Dawson joined current council members Pat McDaniel, Bill Faber and Lisa Gregory in voting the measure down.
Moore Wolfe, McDaniel and council members Chuck Kuhle and David Horn were present at Monday’s meeting.
Kuhle and Horn, who were not on the council when the Aldi project came for a vote, said after the meeting that they would keep an open mind about the project. Horn said that he hoped the developers would address some of the residents’ concerns before bringing the project up for a council vote.
Kuhle said council was in a “tough situation,” saying he would have to try and balance the city’s need for new revenue with the residents’ concerns about how the project could affect them.
“It definitely is an inconvenience for these residents,” Kuhle said. “But on the other hand, we’re trying to grow Decatur, and to turn business away is a tough call.”