By Dermot Connolly
A controversial gas station/convenience store development proposal was sent back to the Palos Heights Planning and Zoning Commission for consideration Tuesday night after the developers made substantial changes to the aesthetics of the plan.
After being reviewed there by the commission and the city attorney, the proposal is expected to come up for a vote again at the next City Council meeting set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1, in the Palos Heights Recreation Center, where this week’s meeting was held.
About 30 residents attended, and none spoke in favor of the development proposal, which Mitch Goltz, a principal in the development firm of GW Properties, first detailed for the City Council two weeks ago. It includes building a 7-Eleven store and Mobil gas station at the northeast corner of College Drive (Route 83) and Harlem Avenue. The development would be adjacent to the Spectrum Palos Heights Senior Living residences that opened last year on the east side of the property.
The 4,000-square-foot 7-Eleven will allow the one located across the street at 11900 S. Harlem, to move into a space that is 35 percent larger than its current space.
Goltz appeared Tuesday night to highlight improvements made to the plan after hearing complaints from residents at the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. These include a “gateway feature” masonry wall emblazoned with “Palos Heights” and the city logo that will wrap around the corner of the property.
“I feel this is a very good offer,” said Ald. Jerry McGovern (4th), who pointed out that the land has been vacant for about 25 years. He noted that with the path in place, cyclists will be within easy reach of Richards Bike Shop, located just across Route 83 at 11933 S. Harlem.
However, Ald. Jeff Key (1st) spoke out against the proposal, pointing out that there are already six gas stations in the city. He showed photos of the exteriors of the existing stations, pointing to cigarette advertising, poorly maintained landscaping and asserting that this will be how the new one will look took.
“While renditions look really nice on presentations, this is what it will look like,” he said, referring to landscaping, litter and advertising issues. “It might not start that way, but it is going to end up that way.”
He asked his fellow aldermen to consider whether having a gas station built on the property would have been their first choice a year ago.
Ald. Michael McGrogan (4th) pointed out that the last time the property was occupied, by a car dealership in the 1990s, it generated $150,000 in annual property taxes for the city. But now, as vacant land, it only brings in a third of that.
“What I think what we should do is relax, and take a breath, and not go for the first development that comes through. It is not going to kill us if we don’t have income. We have a balanced budget now,” said Key.
Mario Malone, vice president of CBRE brokerage firm, which is marketing the property, said the site has drawn very little interest from restaurants or other businesses.
“Difficult ingress-egress (because left turns aren’t possible), and not interested in Cook County because of property taxes,” are some of the reasons given, he said.
“I urge you not to vote for this. I just think it is not the right thing for the property,” said John Hanley, a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the chairman of the Beautification Committee.
He was among about 30 residents watching the proceedings, and none of them said they were in favor of the proposal being considered.
McGrogan and Mayor Bob Straz actually had a couple of testy exchanges with residents Lisa Halko Stach and her husband, Brian Stach, who accused the city officials of not doing enough to promote the site or improve the downtown section along Harlem Avenue to make the area more attractive to new businesses.
“We’ve done as much as we can, with façade improvement programs and improving the municipal lot. We don’t own the businesses along Harlem,” said the mayor.
Lisa Halko Stach leads the Citizens of Palos group on Facebook, and said a couple of hundred people have expressed their opposition to the gas station in comments on that and other local Facebook pages. But McGrogan noted that those numbers are still only a small percentage of the 14,000 residents.
“One thing it won’t be is a park,” said Straz, quashing an idea that had been floated. Besides its close proximity to very busy streets, it is also very close to the Lake Katherine Nature Center. Plus, he said the developers would want to recoup the $2 million already invested in the land, and it would cost another $500,000 to turn it into a park.