AUSTIN — As the Mars chocolate factory prepares to close in 2024, its owners are working with Galewood residents to figure out how the community can take advantage of the nearly century-old building.
Hundreds of residents have shared their ideas through surveys and community meetings about how the building should be used once the factory closes. Several potential uses for the historic building have picked up support, such as transforming it into a library, a community center or a nature sanctuary.
Mars Wrigley announced in January that the company will close the original factory at 2019 N. Oak Park Ave. at some point in 2024. The factory produces candy like Snickers, M&Ms, Milky Way bars, Twix and Skittles.
The factory was built in 1928 with a Spanish Renaissance architecture style and a dramatic façade that makes it an important part of the look and feel of Galewood. A recently formed neighborhood association, Galewood Neighbors, started organizing to preserve the building once the closure was announced since “the factory is an icon and it will be sorely missed,” said Steve Green, a member of the group.
“When this came up, we were panicked because there was so much concern about what was going to happen. We didn’t want to see another vacant building … that just sits there for decades,” Green said.
Mars Wrigley agreed to work with neighbors to identify a plan for what to do with the building and “partner with the surrounding community on a future vision for the site,” a spokesperson for Mars said in a statement.
“We plan on donating the land for use of the community and leveraging the expertise of community partners as we move forward,” the Mars spokesperson said.
The candy company is working with Local Initiatives Support Corp, a group that assisted several neighborhoods in drafting quality-of-life plans, to facilitate a planning process with residents of Austin and the surrounding communities.
Over 500 residents of Austin and neighboring communities Belmont Cragin and Montclare have given their feedback for what to do with the site in a survey. Residents in those areas are invited to participate in the survey and join future community design meetings.
“The idea is to come up with some legitimate ideas that the community wants … and then find out the feasibility,” Green said.
Based on the survey, the top idea for the factory is to turn the building into a Galewood branch of the Chicago Public Library.
Many residents are also want to turn the original building into a historic landmark so the factory’s history in Galewood can be preserved. The original building, which includes the iconic façade, is just a small part of the sprawling factory campus. That portion of the building should be preserved and could then be “filled with a couple cultural institutions,” said Thomas Drebenstedt, a nearby resident.
“A lot of those ideas are appealing to me. But what I would really like to see is the building landmarked,” Drebenstedt said. “We need to retain at least the original part of the building.”
Several of the top contending proposals from residents suggest using the 16-acre Mars campus to bring more greenery to the neighborhood by developing some of the land into parks, community gardens and playgrounds. Many suggested using the factory campus as an extension of the neighboring Rutherford-Sayre Park, which could benefit from amenities like a gymnasium or a community kitchen.
Other ideas include a community center for local youth and seniors, a gallery, artist lofts , an event space and an urban agriculture hub or nature sanctuary.
“What we need to do is consolidate all these ideas, and for the strongest ones we need to pursue partners and funding. Fortunately, we have a little bit of time to work on this,” Drebenstedt said.
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