By Dermot Connolly
The Palos Heights City Council voted 5-3 Tuesday night to allow a controversial Mobil gas station and 7-Eleven convenience store be built at the corner of Harlem Avenue and College Drive.
The development by GW Properties will be on the northeast corner of the intersection 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 planned for the site will replace a smaller one now located on the southwest corner of the intersection at 11900 S. Harlem Ave.
Since first proposing the project, GW Properties has improved the aesthetics of the design, including a “gateway feature” masonry wall emblazoned with “Palos Heights” and the city logo that will wrap around the corner of the property. A small plaza area will be in front of the wall. The developers also agreed to widen and extend a path along the western edge of the property, connecting the Cal-Sag bike path to College Drive.
Representatives of GW Properties left the meeting after the vote, so it could not be immediately determined when work on the development will begin.
A significant number of residents remain opposed to the development. Many residents had voiced their disapproval at two previous City Council meetings, as well as on social media. A few opponents spoke on Tuesday also, before the vote was taken. But a couple of residents spoke in favor of it as well.
“I realize you guys have the votes to pass it, I understand that,” said opponent Brian Stach. He noted that while 260 votes in an online survey by The Regional News might not seem like a lot, elections are won in the city by small margins as well. He suggested “looking at the big picture for Palos Heights,” and working with existing small businesses to improve the downtown area on Harlem Avenue, to attract small businesses to other areas like this in the future.
Tom Keating, another resident, said he was happy to see the gas station moving in, for the convenience factor. “I think that will be a great location and great project and dress up that corner. It will have a lot of curb appeal.”
Maria DeCapria Sunta, chairman of the Public Arts Commission, disagreed. “There is no creativity or nothing special this is not going to enhance our community,” she said.
The 5-3 vote showed aldermen were divided as well.
“I am satisfied with it. It is going to be a big improvement,” said Ald. Jack Clifford (2nd).
“It is a quality project by a quality developer,” said Mayor Bob Straz. “I wasn’t entirely in favor of it until they made the aesthetic improvements. It is going to be a nice gateway now.”
Ald. Michael McGrogan (4th) had previously pointed out that when the car dealership operated on the site 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.
While some of the opponents said having the gas station beside the senior residences did not make sense, Straz pointed out after the meeting that Spectrum has issued a letter of endorsement, stating the new development would fit in well.
They both pointed out that the site has attracted very little interest from developments since a Buick dealership moved out 25 years ago.
Clifford said there was not a lot of support from residents when a retail development was proposed for the entire site, including where the Spectrum senior residences are now. Straz said the City Council ended up voting that project down because the developer insisted on having a bank at the corner.
Aldermen Jeff Key (1st), Robert Basso (2nd) and Brent Lewandowski (3rd) voted against the plan.
“With great respect for the (Zoning Board of Appeals) and the residents, I vote ‘no,’” said Key, who asserted at the last meeting that with six, the city already has enough gas stations.
Lewandowski did not have his mind made up at the last meeting, but after speaking to residents over the past couple of weeks, he decided against it.
“I can see the reasoning behind the development. But I asked residents to talk to me about it, and their views against it swayed me in the other direction,” he said.