Chicago neighborhood may put reins on retail chains

Johnathon E. Briggs
Chicago Tribune
Cars and pedestrians make their way through Chicago's historic Andersonville neighborhood which is known for it's quirky, one-of-a-kind shops in September 2006. (Charles Osgood/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

CHICAGO - For years, the Andersonville neighborhood on Chicago's Far North Side has been defined by it's quirky, hip, one-of-a-kind shops and eateries: Women and Children First bookstore. Ann Sather restaurant. Wikstrom's Gourmet Foods. Alamo Shoes.

Now as the once-struggling neighborhood becomes a hot destination for residents and shoppers - and large corporations take notice - some local business leaders and politicians are considering a drastic attempt to lock in the area's charm: the city's first-ever ban on chain retailers.

According to a draft ordinance by the city Law Department, "formula businesses" such as Starbucks could be banned from designated business districts in certain historic neighborhoods.

The ordinance has not yet been introduced. But if it were to make its way through the City Council successfully, qualifying neighborhoods could decide whether to opt in to the ban.

Proponents got the idea from San Francisco and smaller cities where similar measures are in effect.

The proposal's backers point to a 2004 study that found that for every $100 spent with an Andersonville business, $68 remains in Chicago, compared to $43 with a chain store.

But some property owners - including some retailers - are balking at the idea, arguing that it would unnecessarily restrict property rights.

Andersonville is not chain-free. It has a Starbucks, a UPS store, an Einstein Brothers Bagels. But for the ban's supporters, it's a matter of proportion.

"One Einstein Brothers Bagels isn't going to harm the neighborhood, but if we started getting a density of them, then our whole character changes," said Ellen Shepard, executive director of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce.

The concept of banning Borders, The Gap and their ilk is no doubt provocative in light of the "big-box" minimum wage ordinance vetoed last month by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who contended it was anti-business and anti-development. That measure would have required that employees of large retail stores be paid at least $10 an hour and receive $3 an hour in fringe benefits by 2010.

So far the Daley administration has no position on the so-called "formula retail" ordinance. Alderman Mary Ann Smith, one of the proponents of the ban, said much work remains to be done. If an ordinance ultimately is introduced in the City Council, she said, it could be months from now.

But the idea is already stirring debate in tight-knit Andersonville.

Some merchants support the concept, contending that it will help preserve the distinct retail flavor of Andersonville, but are against a citywide ban.

Ann Christophersen, owner of Women and Children First, said she would prefer a measure like that in San Francisco, which allows varying regulations in each neighborhood. Some neighborhoods there have banned chain stores entirely.

But building owners faced with rising real estate taxes are opposed to the proposal, because they wouldn't be able to rent to chain-store merchants, who often can pay more. They argue that the best defense against chain stores is to create an environment for independent retailers to thrive.

What both sides agree to is this: Andersonville has a "sense of place" worth preserving.

The neighborhood's roots date to the mid-19th Century, when immigrant Swedish farmers moved into what was then a distant suburb. Settlement was sparse until the Great Fire of 1871, when the log cabins preferred by city-dwelling Swedish immigrants were outlawed within Chicago's boundaries.

The immigrants soon migrated north, settling into homes around Clark Street and opening delis, hardware stores, bakeries and other businesses.

The neighborhood, which is officially part of Edgewater and Uptown, slid into a decades-long decline after the Great Depression. Swedes began to move to the suburbs after World War II and Clark Street became littered with empty storefronts.

Though local business leaders rededicated Andersonville to its Swedish roots in the 1960s, disinvestment again plagued its commercial district in the 1980s.

Business owners again rallied and with the help of locally-owned banks, provided financing for start-ups and to market the community. The effort resurrected Clark Street, and Andersonville's residential areas became fashionable again.

The proposed ordinance would protect a pedestrian-friendly stretch of Clark Street from Foster to Bryn Mawr Avenues. If approved, the ordinance would keep out stores with at least five locations with standard characteristics such as merchandise and signage.

To qualify to become a chain-free retail zone, an area must be on a pedestrian street and part of a historic district, or distinctive in appearance. It also must meet two of the following criteria: have a "diverse retail base with distinct retailing personalities," have a shopping experience that attracts tourists and local residents or have few or no chain stores in the area.

"The novelty (of Andersonville) is about history, local people, the stories," said Thom Greene, an architect who designed the Clark Street streetscape. "If you eliminate the stories, you're Anywhere America."

But Marianne Candido, who owns a three-flat on Clark Street with a Specialty Video store on the first floor, said the ban would violate property rights.

"The government tells me that I can't discriminate who I rent to on the upper floors as long as they meet the economics," Candido said. "But on the bottom part, they're going to tell me, `Sorry, not these bigger chain stores. You have to rent to mom-and-pop and they may or may not be able to pay the rent."

Others like Tim Rasmussen, owner of Charlie's Ale House, don't think the ordinance is needed at all. The narrow corridor of Clark Street, with its small storefronts and lack of parking, is simply not appealing to chain stores, he said.

Still, "we should explore all options to try to preserve what we have in Andersonville," said state Rep. Harry Osterman, who represents the area. "It's not something that happened by accident."

The way deli owner Ingvar Wikstrom sees it, the key to helping local businesses survive is to provide property tax breaks. Then they can compete on an even playing field with chain stores, which typically are better capitalized.

"If the city wants nice little villages in Chicago, we have to think about property taxes," said the longtime owner of Wikstrom's Gourmet Foods, where the coffee is always free. "That will chase out the small businesses no matter what."

Frequent Clark Street patron Amy Mall said the homegrown shopkeepers are what make the neighborhood special.

"It would be sad to see Andersonville change," said Mall, who routinely rides two buses from the Logan Square neighborhood, daughter in tow, for the shopping pleasure. "If it did, there wouldn't be a reason to go there."





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