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Greektown businesses wary of economic effects of Circle Interchange reconstruction

Greektown Chamber Commerce President John Theoharis attends meeting business owners Illinois Department Transportatiengineers Wednesday National Hellenic Museum. Business owners are

Greektown Chamber of Commerce President John Theoharis attends a meeting of business owners and Illinois Department of Transportation engineers Wednesday at the National Hellenic Museum. Business owners are concerned about the economic effects of Circle Interchange reconstruction plans that include rebuilding the Halsted Street bridge and create a flyover ramp. | Tina Sfondeles~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 15, 2013 7:33PM

To John Theoharis, owner of two Greektown restaurants, Circle Interchange reconstruction will cause a traffic headache and create a physical separation that will ultimately cost business in an area that’s just beginning to see an economic turnaround.

At the request of area business owners, Illinois Department of Transportation engineers participated in a fiery two-hour meeting Wednesday at the National Hellenic Museum to discuss plans to rebuild the Halsted Street bridge and create a flyover ramp — two lanes and two shoulders — above Halsted Street to get drivers from the northbound Dan Ryan Expy. to the westbound Eisenhower.

That’s just part of the 4 1/2-year, $420 million project that will rebuild one of the nation’s worst bottlenecks. Work on Halsted in Greektown could begin as soon as January. It will close one lane in each direction for eight to 12 months of construction.

“This is not a political thing,” Theoharis, president of the Greektown Chamber of Commerce, told engineers. He said they didn’t take into account the human factor, just the effect on traffic.

He argued that business owners have turned the area around economically and now they fear the repercussions that construction will bring.

“You have to understand where we are coming from,” he said. “We came here when this area was burned out. We fixed it ourselves. We invested a lot of money in businesses, in homes. . . . Not many people believed in us.”

He said the flyover will create a physical separation in the neighborhood, instead of encouraging CTA riders and University of Illinois at Chicago students to visit Greektown.

“UIC is part of our community as well. . . . I don’t see how you guys thought of how it would affect my business, as far as construction, and also what it does to me. It basically separates me,” said George Tsoukalas, owner of Athena restaurant. “. . . You’re basically dividing us. You’re splitting us down the middle. I don’t care if there’s an underpass underneath.”

Engineers have narrowed the Halsted Street construction plans down to two, one of which would have created an underground ramp under Halsted Street. They said that plan would be unsafe because of roller-coaster type ramps and because flooding likely would be in underground tunnels.

Steve Schilke, IDOT project manager, told the group there is no choice but to replace the dilapidated cross bridges over Van Buren, Jackson, Adams and Monroe.

“At some point, the bridge needs to be replaced, so we have to replace it some day. That some day came within the next four years,” Schilke said. “It came unfortunately for you, next year. And that is where it is, no matter what project, no matter what alternative plan is selected.”

James Manolakos and his family own the Pan-Hellenic Pastry Shop, which was damaged in a fire in 2010 and later reopened. He said he’s concerned that UIC students will continue to flock to University Village shops instead of supporting small-business owners.

“We are all independently owned places. We don’t hope that the corporate mother is going to send us money to keep us going,” Manolakos said. “Everything directly affects us.”

Community members will get another chance to voice their opinions at a public hearing on June 27. The massive project is in the environmental assessment phase; the public review and comment process will end July 12.

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