Warehouse district charts a business path

It’s not always easy for small businesses

Caffe Sola

For Sarah Robbins, it was time to leave the warehouse district.

The owner of Caffe Sola, on 23rd Street, hadn’t been able to negotiate a new lease with her landlord. After two years of paying month-tomonth, she faced a rent hike of close to 40 per cent.

Last month, she closed her shop after seven years in business.

It was a hard decision, she said.

“We’ve been here for a while and I’ve really enjoyed doing what I’ve been doing. And I feel really bad for the customers – I probably feel worse for the customers and the staff than I do for myself. There’s always new adventures to go on.”

Robbins’ dream for Caffe Sola looked promising at first, and it fit the city’s vision for the warehouse district.

A 2002 plan – the most recent to be officially adopted – described a “teeming urban environment reinventing itself in the shell of its historic industrial character.

“The district will be nurtured from a forgotten urban core to a vibrant people place that supports arts and culture, in harmony with a variety of mixed uses,” it said.

The building Robbins rented has about 5,000 square feet of space on the top floor and 3,500 square feet in the basement. She had hoped to develop an artistic community with studios in the basement – a hot spot with music and an art gallery where people could meet.

But her landlord didn’t share that vision. And since then, the reality of the warehouse district has changed. “Initially it was like, ‘This will be great, we’ll have lots of customers.’ But the flip side to that is, (large companies) move in and prices go up like crazy. Then the little indie shops can’t make it.”

But the indie shops can make it in Riversdale, she says. The Underground Cafe, for example, now showcases a weekend arts and crafts market; a guitar shop has opened, and art galleries dot the area.

That neighbourhood has taken over the arts aspect of the warehouse district plan, said developer Curtis Olson, who spearheaded The Two Twenty coworking space on 20th Street.

He set up in Riversdale after making an unsuccessful bid on the former Arthur Cook building in the warehouse district.

“It’s a funny thing, right? When you look at Riversdale, the fabric of buildings is such that it’s small buildings.

There’s tons and tons of tiny little 25-to 30-footwide buildings that are easily renovated and repurposed and refurbished and brought back to life by local business owners and local developers.

“As a result, this neighbourhood has been moving at light speed while the warehouse district has basically had a police station and two massive offices built that have no retail or ground level development.”

The warehouse district now charts a course toward becoming a good office neighbourhood that’s close to downtown and has quick access for vehicles, Olson said.

But the district still remains largely true to the 11-year old plan, said Alan Wallace, the city’s manager of planning and development.

Two new office buildings and the new $122-million police station had to complement the district’s turn-ofthe-century Chicago esthetic of brick and concrete and wrought iron, he said.

“Those aren’t terribly big, but you’re right, there are some big users out there now. But there is still opportunity to take some of those buildings and divide them into smaller spaces,” Wallace said.

At some point more smaller properties along 25th Street will be offered for sale as well, he said.