January 16, 2009

Grocer says construction will push it out

Liberty Foods Corp., owner of local grocer Village Foods, sued its landlord Antheus Capital LLC on December 23 to halt a redevelopment plan that would cut the number of parking spots in the grocer's shopping center, which they allege will drive them out of business.

Village Foods has leased space for 25 years at the Village Center, a shopping complex at the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and Lake Park Avenue. Antheus “plans to demolish the Shopping Center, and build a new mixed use development which would include condominiums, a mid-rise retail building, and a multi-level parking garage,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit, filed in the Cook County Circuit Court, states that the plan will limit Village Foods's parking to 22 spots during construction. Village Food's lease, which runs until 2013, promises the store 70 parking spots.

The development would also demolish the produce and beverage sections of the store, which occupy about a fifth of the store’s total area, and cut off the store’s visibility and accessibility from Hyde Park Boulevard and Lake Park Avenue, according to the suit.

Liberty Foods’s attorney, Michael Weininger, said he has been in conversation with Antheus, but that they have not yet filed a response to the suit, and that there is not yet a fixed court date.

The development plan was approved by the TIF 53rd St. Advisory Council, a development committee specifically for that district, and by Fourth-ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle in a meeting on September 8, 2008, according to Chuck Thurow, a member of the council.

Howard Males, chair to the council, emphasized that TIF’s monthly counsel meetings, and regular committee meetings, are open to the public, and tried to engage the community as much as possible in such decisions. He would not comment on the suit.

Hyde Park activist Jack Spicer, commended the development project, which he said could help restore the area to the way it was before the University of Chicago's Urban Renewal project of the late 1950's, which he claimed demolished "the best commercial buidlings in Chicago."

But local patrons who rely on the convenience, goods and services offered by Village Center are more apprehensive of the restricted parking.

Hyde Park resident Anna Morris said she has stopped at Village Foods on her way home from work at the University of Chicago Dialisis Center for the past seven years. She heard about the development project, and said that if the parking spaces reduced she’d “have trouble” finding one.

Lisa LaRoche-Sczurek, owner of the Original Pancake House, which is also in Village Center, said she fears that, at worst, her business will not be rebuilt in the new development, and at best, it will have to close down temporarily during construction. LaRoche-Sczurek said many of her customers are seniors for whom parking is "crucial."

On Monday near noon the lot was full, Original Pancake House's phones ran off the hook with takeout orders, and the line waiting for tables filled the entry way.

Village Foods staff, Liberty Foods Corps. management, Antheus Capital LLC, and MAC Property Management, their local property management company, all declined to comment on the pending litigation. Preckwinckle could not be reached for comment.