PORTAGE PARK — A proposal for a Panda Express at an under-used Bank of America lot near Six Corners has been pulled after neighbors fought the project.
Texas-based firm Heights Venture Architecture + Design proposed a Panda Express drive-thru two years ago for the bank lot at 4150 N. Cicero Ave. The site still operates two ATMs, but the banking facility closed years ago.
Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) held a virtual meeting about the proposal last year, but residents opposed it, saying it would create more traffic headaches, negatively impact local businesses, add trash and create late-night rowdiness near residential blocks.
After the meeting — which was largely interrupted by residents demanding answers from the alderman about multiple federal and local investigations into his conduct — Gardiner held another virtual meeting last month focused on updates about the proposed fast food restaurant.
While proposed traffic patterns were revised, they were not enough to sway neighbors. They sent several emails, called the alderman’s office and even started a petition to oppose the project, attendees said.
About a week after the meeting, Gardiner’s staff delivered a letter to residents on Berteau and Warner avenues, informing them he would deny a special-use permit for the drive-thru based on community feedback.
The Panda Express would not have needed a zoning change nor permission from Gardiner, but it would have needed a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to operate its drive-thru.
No such permit was filed, and it did not come up at the board’s meeting last week, city spokesperson Peter Strazzabosco said.
Representatives from Heights Venture Architecture + Design previously told neighbors operating the restaurant without the drive-thru was not economically feasible, said Carolyn Cristofani, who lives close to the parcel and started the opposition petition.
Company representatives did not return requests for comment.
With the proposal dead, neighbors hope a local development can take over the former Bank of America lot, especially as development at Six Corners booms.
“Once that Target goes into the Sears building and the Clarendale is supposed to be move in this fall, so many things will change,” said Cristofani, who has lived in the area since 2018. “Once we have those hubs anchoring Six Corners, we will be able to promote and develop some local, dynamic businesses that will serve the neighborhood.”
Ideally, “the sky is the limit” in terms of what could take over the Bank of America lot — but it should be something that can be a destination for neighbors versus a pit-stop like a fast food restaurant, Cristofani said.
Cristofani and her neighbor, Rebecca Cox, said they were happy the alderman listened to their concerns in scrapping the project and so many neighbors shared input. Cox said neighbors want to see a mixed-use development, possibly a co-working space or doctor’s office, with businesses or a sit-down restaurant on the ground floor.
“We are all hoping that it’s more pedestrian-friendly, maybe more than just one occupancy,” Cox said. “We want people to want to come to Portage Park.”
Cox has seen numerous accidents at the corner of Cicero and Warner avenues and would like to see “strategic” development that is in line with the increased density of the neighborhood and that’s less car-centric.
Business owners along Cicero Avenue said more businesses and foot traffic are needed to help out local spots and spur economic stability since Sears closed in 2018. Freddy Rafidi, owner of Roma’s Italian Beef & Sausage at 4237 N. Cicero Ave., said he’s seen fewer customers since Sears closed and would have welcomed the Panda Express — anything to bring people to the corridor.
“We don’t want an empty lot,” Rafidi said. “It’s better for everybody to have business. … I am a restaurant owner, and I want another restaurant here.”
Across the street, employees at dog grooming business All 4 Dirty Paws, 4232 N. Cicero Ave, also want more food options in the area, particularly healthier lunch spots. The Starbucks that opened in 2018 at 4155 N. Cicero Ave. has made the area more popular, but more attractions are needed, said Jessica Torres, All 4 Dirty Paws co-owner.
“I [would be] happy to see another development in the lot,” Torres said. “We need more food options … something to boost foot traffic.”
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