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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005 03:35 pm

Man with a plan

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PHOTO BY TODD SPIVAK

A prominent Springfield developer has plans to level the Esquire Theatre and build an upscale outdoor shopping center that would include a café and small grocery on three acres along MacArthur Boulevard near South Grand Avenue.

Though the plan is still in the preliminary stages, Garrison Group Inc. has signed an offer-to-purchase contract with Kerasotes Theatres Inc., which owns the L-shaped property that includes the vacant theater building and a pair of adjacent parking lots.

The project’s relatively small scale and its location in the heart of a residential district signal a shift for Garrison Group, which is better known for developing massive big-box stores at the city’s perimeter.

Todd Smith, president of Garrison Group, says the proposed development could begin to reverse years of disinvestment along MacArthur. The once-thriving commercial artery has shown signs of decline as big retailers such as Kmart have moved out and several payday-loan stores have moved in.

The ambitious $32 million plan to extend MacArthur south to Woodside Drive, with access ramps to Interstate 72, is expected to create a retail boom in coming years.

“If this project moves forward,” says Smith, “it would be the quality project that sets the example for redevelopment to grow south on MacArthur.”

Last fall, Garrison Group hired local architectural firm J.H. Petty & Associates to design what has been tentatively named Cherry Grove Shoppes.

A rendering shows a series of five one- and two-story redbrick buildings, ranging from 5,000 to 11,000 square feet, stretching from South Grand to Campbell Avenue along the eastern side of MacArthur.

“We want a cluster of smaller buildings instead of a strip center or one big building,” says Smith. “We want a quaint neighborhood feel to the project.”

The plan includes an interior parking lot with fewer than 200 spaces and a tree-lined promenade separating the city sidewalk on MacArthur from the buildings.

Garrison Group also hopes to acquire the four lots directly north of the proposed development, which now hold a dry cleaners and gymnasium, a vacant gas station, and a design store. Smith says that although no deals have been struck, he has spoken with each of the property owners.

Likely tenants for the site include a mix of local and national businesses, including a café and sandwich shop with outdoor seating, a bookstore, a card and gift shop, and a women’s-clothing outlet. The development would also feature a small neighborhood-type grocery. Stu Kainste, manager of Food Fantasies at 1512 W. Wabash Ave., confirms plans to open a store at the site if the project is approved. The grocery will feature an outdoor café.

Before moving forward with the project, Smith says, he will host a public meeting next Thursday to discuss the plans.

Community support is critical to the project’s success. Last summer, Harper Oil Co. scrapped plans to build a gas station, convenience store, and fast-food restaurant on the Esquire Theatre site after scores of residents protested the development.

“We wanted something more upscale to fit into the character and integrity of the neighborhood,” says Kathleen Sorensen, president of Washington Park–Knolls Association, which represents 700 households in the area west of MacArthur.

Residents argued that the site is zoned for community shopping and office space and worried that a gas station would keep late hours and sell alcohol. Many also predicted increased traffic on MacArthur because the busy four-lane route has no central turn lanes.

Anticipating similar concerns, Garrison Group hired local engineering firm Crawford, Murphy & Tilly Inc. to design a plan to reroute traffic into the proposed shopping center.

The plan includes closing off Conkling Avenue to MacArthur and extending Leland Avenue, which now dead-ends at MacArthur.

Leland, which is equidistant between South Grand and Laurel avenues, would be signalized for both traffic and pedestrians and become the main entry point into the new shopping center.

“That’s been a disastrous intersection for people waiting to make left-hand turns from Conkling onto MacArthur,” says Ward 7 Ald. Judy Yeager, who has met twice with Garrison Group and endorses the plan.

Such proposals, Smith stresses, are negotiable and would require approval from the city and Illinois Department of Transportation. Garrison Group has not secured financing for the several-million-dollar project and will not sink more money into design plans unless positive feedback is received from the community.

“Neighborhood associations,” Smith explains, “have become very effective in being involved in the development process in Springfield.”

Although the future of the property remains uncertain, the fate of the Esquire Theatre, which closed in September 2003, appears sealed. Kerasotes, which owns all of the theaters in Springfield, has stipulated in its contract that the building must not be used to screen movies.

“Kerasotes isn’t interested in creating competition,” says John Barber, an independent broker who represents the theater company in the sale. The Esquire, which opened in 1937, will likely be razed, says Barber, because its size and layout limit its uses.

Garrison Group hopes to bring back some of the pre-World War II feel of the area, when MacArthur was called West Grand Avenue and marked the western boundary of Springfield. Old photographs show a pedestrian-friendly intersection with buildings close to the street.

Smith says he wants to “throw back to that era” and would consider including a mix of retail, office space, and even second-floor residential-loft units at the site.

“The project shouldn’t end up looking like White Oaks II or Town & Country [shopping centers],” says Charles Pell of CJP Architects, a consultant on the project. “If it has the look and feel of a strip mall with cars in front and the buildings in the back, then it won’t be successful.”

Until now, such strip malls have been Garrison Group’s bread and butter. The plan for MacArthur represents a major departure for the family-run company, whose chairman helped steer the development of Prairie Crossing and Parkway Pointe, located off Veterans Parkway.

“The trend for the last decade or two has been to push the envelope to the edge of the city with retail,” says Smith. “We believe the trend is shifting. People want to bring retail back to neighborhoods and make purchases closer to their homes.”

Garrison Group will hold a public meeting to discuss plans for MacArthur Boulevard from 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at Laurel United Methodist Church, 631 W. South Grand Ave.

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