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Walmart plan stirs passions in Northbrook

Walmart workers bring merchandise first 'Walmart Express' urban market July 2011 Chatham neighborhood South Side. It emphasizes fresh foods is

Walmart workers bring merchandise to the first "Walmart Express" urban market in July 2011 in the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side. It emphasizes fresh foods and is about the size of a convenience store. l Sun-Times files

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Updated: November 3, 2013 6:34AM

When it comes to attitudes toward Walmart, the Chicago area has come full circle.

A few years ago, Walmart couldn’t buy a favor in the City Council. Unions stood firm against the retailer coming into the city, accusing it of providing substandard wages and benefits. But it built stores in the suburbs with impunity.

In time, it became apparent that those suburban stores were drawing sales taxes from city residents, too. People in poor areas let their aldermen know that they wanted the additional shopping options and jobs that a Walmart could deliver, and the company developed smaller formats fit for big cities.

Food deserts were a concern, and Walmart helped cut them down to size. The company also agreed to pay wages slightly higher than the state minimum and use union labor in building its stores.

Opposition melted away and today large-scale Walmarts have been welcomed in Chatham and Pullman. It operates smaller stores scattered around the city.

So where is it running into opposition? Try bucolic Northbrook.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants to build a 150,000-square-foot store at 1000 Skokie Blvd., just south of the Dundee Road interchange with the Edens Expy. It’s a heavily trafficked commercial area, with homes immediately to the west and forest preserves close by.

Unlike the old disputes in the city, this one is more of a classic zoning fight. But it has a little something extra.

The classic part is that residents have organized and lawyered up. They contend that Walmart will exacerbate traffic, bathe backyards in bright light and lower property values.

Susan Jacobs, active with a consortium called Northbrook Homeowners and Businesses, also said the store will cause pollution by sending its stormwater runoff into the Skokie Lagoons.

Jacobs also said the touted economic benefits bring tradeoffs to the village, such as competition for existing businesses and more spending on infrastructure.

The property, an old ComEd site, has been vacant for years and parts of it have slipped back to nature, with prairie wildflowers moving in. The owner is billionaire Michael Krasny, founder of computer seller CDW Corp., who would sell the site to Wal-Mart and retain five acres for future development.

Attorney Hal Francke, representing Krasny, said residents a few years back fought a Costco that wanted to land there. Francke said the Walmart will increase Northbrook’s revenue from sales taxes by 10 percent, or about $1.5 million a year.

Anne Hatfield, director of communications for Wal-Mart, said the company has made several good-faith compromises with the residents, such as dropping plans to keep it open 24 hours, eliminating traffic access from a residential street and agreeing not to sell guns and ammunition.

Northbrook has had three public hearings on the topic and a fourth is scheduled for Oct. 23 at the village plan commission. Feelings have run hot against the retailer.

“I think it is unfortunate, but I don’t think some of the louder voices we’re hearing represent the majority opinion in this case,” Hatfield said. Francke commented that some supporters have been intimidated by the vehemence of the critics.

The “something extra” could be a little elitism. Wal-Mart openly wants the store as its door into the wealthy North Shore, where it has a gap in market coverage.

Several critics have appeared at the hearings and posted online comments saying Walmart is not classy enough for the North Shore.

“That’s a factor in people’s reaction,” Jacobs said. “We’re focusing more specifically on what the plan commission will deal with.”

She also said there are at least 12 Walmarts within a 15-mile driving radius of the Northbrook property.

Francke observed that for all the intense interest in the project, people have paid much less attention to another significant development in the same neighborhood. At 770 Skokie Blvd., just north of Dundee, developers propose more than 100,000 square feet of retail space, including a Mariano’s grocery. They also want a 10-story, 416-unit “luxury” apartment complex.

HAPPENING ON HALSTED: Developer Golub & Co., better known for downtown high-rises, has been buying property in Lincoln Park and now wants to build on some of it. On parcels that run northwest of Halsted and Willow, Golub has proposed building 60 residential units, retail space along Halsted and parking. It would tear down 43 apartments on the properties.

Ald. Michele Smith, whose 43rd Ward includes the neighborhood, said the plan drew substantial criticism at a public meeting Monday night and will have to be amended. She said residents like neither the look nor Golub’s intent to tear down a 19th century building at 1800 N. Halsted that the city rates as having potential architectural merit. The building is home to the Black Duck Tavern & Grille.

David Roeder reports on real estate at 6:22 p.m. Thursdays on WBBM-AM (780) and WBBM-FM (105.9). The reports are repeated at 10:22 p.m. Thursday and 7:22 a.m. Sunday.

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