In the good old days they came by bus, train, or trolley to shop in the stores in the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland business district. “You’d get dressed up to go shopping; it was a big thing,” says Anne LaFleur, a longtime resident of Lakeview. “You could buy fancy dresses and nice shoes; we’d go on weekends. It was special.”

Nowadays, roughly 15 percent of the property on the commercial strip that runs along Lincoln from Wellington to Roscoe is vacant. The five-story department store that housed Wieboldt’s is boarded up and scarred with graffiti; Goldblatt’s, once the area’s second-largest retailer, was partially subdivided a few years back and is finally closing; and JMB-Urban Properties (a real estate conglomerate) has officially abandoned its much-heralded plan to build a multimillion-dollar commercial-retail-residential complex in the area.

In many ways the shopping district’s plight is no different from that of all the other urban retail districts that have been abandoned for suburban malls and urban strip malls. What makes Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland’s fate so perplexing is its location: it’s situated in one of the north side’s hottest real estate markets.

“It’s the last piece of Lakeview that hasn’t really been developed,” says Jerry Haderlein, president of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce. Sure enough, all around it are signs of redevelopment–more cars, higher rents, new restaurants and boutiques. The 44th Ward’s median income has tripled in the last ten years, according to Alderman Bernard Hansen. And almost every vacant lot in the neighborhood has been filled with newly built town houses.

“The average price of a home in Lakeview has gone up 268 percent in the last ten years,” says Hansen, who also sells real estate in the area. “A brick two-flat goes from anywhere between $190,000 to $275,000. I’m selling a house on Wellington that’s going for $2.6 million. Generally speaking the economy may be bad, but Lakeview’s still strong.”

Many observers say that the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland district suffers because its old-fashioned buildings don’t appeal to the area’s new upscale residents. In its heyday the area was supported by a working-class clientele who didn’t mind walking or taking public transportation to shop.

“Today people want to drive everywhere, they don’t want to walk,” says Haderlein. “But the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland district wasn’t built for cars. There’s virtually no on-the-street parking.”

That could also be what’s keeping new retailers away. Some studies show that consumers feel safer if they can drive to a mall.

“It’s a perception that may not be completely rational,” says Dana Blay, a Lakeview architect who was commissioned by the chamber of commerce to prepare a study on Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland. “But a lot of people say they don’t like to go shopping where they have to cross busy intersections. When you think about it, it’s sort of funny–they’re probably not much safer walking through a large and busy parking lot in one of those suburban malls.”

But there might be another reason people with cars don’t frequent the district: its stores. Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland’s busiest businesses are discount-clothing and shoe stores, whose customers live in the less affluent area west of Ashland Avenue. Even these stores are feeling the pinch of competition from malls and shopping strips.

“The kind of stores we have on Lincoln Avenue attract the type of shopper who now shops in places like Wal-Mart and K mart,” says Haderlein. Those consumers are turning instead to shopping strips like the one on Ashland just south of Wellington. And the wealthier consumers are turned off by the area’s old-fashioned department stores.

“No one likes them anymore,” says Haderlein. “They’re multistory; to get to the different departments you have to take an elevator or escalator. People don’t like that. They don’t like to walk upstairs; they don’t like to take elevators. They just want to be able to walk right in. These stores are out of the past.”

The building stock makes it more difficult for the area to undergo the kind of commercial renewal that transformed other north-side business streets like Southport and Halsted, says Blay.

“It’s not like Halsted between Fullerton and Armitage in Lincoln Park,” he says. “There you have a nearby college–DePaul–which has always provided a steady stream of commerce. Halsted is also unusual in that it has residential and offices on the east side of the street, which provides a group of consumers for the boutiques and stores on the west side of the street. And that’s another thing–most of the storefronts along Halsted are small enough to become boutiques. You don’t have that with the large buildings on Lincoln.”

The more recent resurrection along Southport just north of Addison is similar to that on Halsted–a commercial strip lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and clothing stores.

“The catalyst for Southport is the Music Box movie theater,” says Blay. “The Music Box draws people to the neighborhood. I’d like to see a big theater on Lincoln, but I don’t know if we could get one soon.”

The JMB project was first unveiled in the late 1980s, when JMB was one of the world’s fastest-growing real estate firms. They bought the Wieboldt’s building, at School and Ashland, which had been vacant for almost five years. Then they bought all the property around it and announced plans for a complex that would include 60 units of housing, several stores, and a 700-car parking garage.

“When that happened we were all real optimistic,” says Hansen. “You had several shopping strips further south on Ashland that were doing well. And now here comes JMB–a real estate company with the magic touch–saying they wanted to do an even bigger job with the Wieboldt’s site.”

For two years the project stalled for lack of financing, but JMB officials remained optimistic. Finally last week JMB announced that it was giving up. Meanwhile the Wieboldt’s building had become more and more run-down for lack of use. JMB consistently blamed the project’s collapse on national economic trends that are beyond their control. Nevertheless, resentment toward JMB still runs high among local merchants.

“They came in here and said they were going to fix up the neighborhood, but the building is in worse shape than ever,” says Michele Kunze, who owns the Signery, a local sign-making business. “It’s got graffiti and boarded-up windows and it just makes the neighborhood look bad. The least they could do is take care of their property.” (JMB officials could not be reached for comment.)

Meanwhile, JMB’s interest in the area encouraged nearby landlords to raise their rents. “The whole JMB thing put us in a no-man’s-land,” says Kunze. “For years, you had to ask yourself: is JMB coming here or not? Some landlords started speculating and raising their rents. But that only forced businesses out or discouraged others from coming here.”

Last year, at Hansen’s insistence, the City Council voted to designate the district as a “blighted commercial area,” making it eligible for certain kinds of local and federal assistance. The designation has generated mixed reviews.

“It doesn’t sound good,” says Kunze. “Would you want to own property in a blighted area?”

Haderlein disagrees. “I think the designation has a positive impact in that it allows the city to exercise its power of eminent domain to acquire property and maybe stimulate development. Calling it a blighted area has no impact on a developer who knows what the potential is here.”

But the city is sending mixed signals about its intentions for the area by proposing to sell six nearby parking lots, many of which are underused and filled with weeds–just far enough away from most of the area’s businesses that most people don’t know they’re there, say merchants. “I’m not sure that selling the parking lots is a good idea,” says Haderlein. “Maybe we should be putting more parking in instead of taking it out.”

Even with the blighted designation, it’s unlikely that the city will find the money to stimulate development in the area. If redevelopment comes, most predict it will be the kind of slow-but-steady private-sector investment that has gentrified the rest of Lakeview.

“What will happen, I predict, is that some developers will come in and subdivide the larger department stores, like Wieboldt’s,” says Hansen. “We’ve already seen that to a degree with the Goldblatt’s store. They’ll probably convert the top floors to rental or condominium and rent the bottom stores for commercial or retail. It will happen, though. There’s just too much disposable income here waiting to be spent.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.