On the weekends Eddie Cortes, a resident of Portage Park, goes shopping with his family. “My wife and I have two small children,” he says, “and they love to read–we’re blessed with that.” But in the retail district near his house–the so-called Six Corners at Irving Park, Cicero, and Milwaukee–Cortes complains, “there’s no place to eat, and there’s certainly no place to buy books. That pisses me off. I can’t spend my tax dollars where I live and work.” Instead the Corteses head for the suburbs.

Back in the 40s and 50s Six Corners was one of the city’s busiest retail areas. These days a Sears store and a large shopping center anchored by a Jewel supermarket line the east side of Cicero at the corners. City Newsstand, the most extensive periodical outlet in Chicago, is across the street, and Fantasy Costumes and the newly reopened Portage Theater are around the corner on Milwaukee. But storefronts are empty and foot traffic is scarce.

“Six Corners is a ghost town,” says Cortes.

The sorry state of the Portage Park retail climate is exemplified by the fate of the unoccupied Klee building, at the corner of Cicero and Milwaukee. Planners and residents alike see reviving the Klee as central to bringing back Six Corners, but the process has taken five years so far, and the latest attempt has been delayed for months as the city’s planning department debates competing proposals for the site. “Residents are fed up that there’s been no decision yet,” says Adrienne O’Brien, president of the Portage Park Neighborhood Association.

Built in 1931, the five-story art deco Klee building takes its name from Klee Brothers, a men’s clothier that trumpeted its retail amenities almost as much as the garments it had for sale. “The equipment of our stores, their lighting, their ventilation, their generously apportioned salesrooms, their homelike atmosphere–all these we consider second only to the high class of merchandise we handle,” read an early Klee advertising pamphlet. The flatiron-style building boasted elevators with wrought-iron dials, wide stairwells, terrazzo floors, and marble wainscoting–luxurious for the working-class neighborhood.

With office suites above the store attracting dentists and other professionals, the building prospered into the 1960s, when Klee Brothers sold out to the Rothschild’s clothing chain. But after Rothschild’s left in the 80s, the building failed to attract new retail tenants. Instead the first-floor commercial space housed a series of bank branches–including the Capitol Federal Bank for Savings, whose president, George Demes, and chairman, Alexander Sarovich, bought the Klee in their own names. Capitol Federal went bankrupt during the savings and loan collapse of the late 80s and early 90s, and the two officers were indicted for financial improprieties. After both pleaded guilty, Sarovich, who got off with probation, gained sole ownership of the building.

The Klee was still seen as a critical site by planners hoping to revitalize the area. In the mid-90s, at the urging of the nonprofit Greater Northwest Development Corporation, the city set up a tax increment financing district, or TIF, east of Cicero but including the Klee building to funnel property-tax dollars into infrastructure improvements and development. That brought in the Jewel shopping center. A second TIF west of Cicero was designed to benefit the rest of Six Corners.

“We felt the Klee building was the cornerstone of the intersection,” says Jason Gustaveson, then executive director of the GNDC. “It could provide the retail synergy we needed to extend the vitality from Sears and the Jewel center onto Milwaukee Avenue and to the west.” A 1997 study by the National Main Street Center, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, also identified conversion of the Klee as the crucial first step in reviving Six Corners.

By 1998 the Klee’s commercial space was completely vacant. The GNDC sounded a call for developers interested in working on the building to come forward. Two responded. Ron Shipka proposed converting the structure into 70 condominiums, with space for a Whole Foods or Service Merchandise on the first floor. He also envisioned taking over a vacant Woolworth’s and the adjoining Heller Women’s Apparel building and putting in lower-priced condos and parking. For Shipka this was something of a sentimental journey–“I grew up in Portage Park and shopped at Klee Brothers,” he says. But in the end the city opted for a similar plan forwarded by another developer, Gary Poter, an “infill” specialist experienced at converting vacant property in built-up city neighborhoods to multifamily housing. “The city said Poter could move this faster,” says Joe Angelastri, owner of City Newsstand.

With Poter on board, the city bought the Klee from Sarovich for $1.8 million using the power of eminent domain. Then nothing happened. “We went through various design changes,” Poter says. “More commercial, less commercial. Less units, more units. We couldn’t get the deal done.” He won’t comment further, but Angelastri says Poter was demanding a larger TIF subsidy than the city wanted to give.

In August 2002, with the Klee still empty, the city’s Department of Planning, under pressure from 45th Ward alderman Patrick Levar, invited developers again to submit plans to revive the building. This time three proposals came in: Developer George Ardelean suggested a dense mixed-use project. Poter mapped out a design for 64 condos, parking, and 20,000 square feet of retail space housing a national retailer like Tower Records or Barnes & Noble; he also proposed to build around City Newsstand and an existing currency exchange on his way to upgrading the Woolworth’s and the Heller building, both of which he’d acquired. The third firm, Pusateri Sandberg Development, put forth the idea of converting the Klee into a small, arts-friendly complex, encouraged by a nascent Department of Cultural Affairs program to spur affordable housing for artists. This plan would divide the Klee into 34 condos, with mortgage subsidies available for artists, and a retail space ideal for a gallery. “We’ll also put a garden on the roof,” says Jacques Sandberg. “The mayor’s interested in green roofs.”

By law, the city is required to hold a public hearing when it sets up a TIF–but it doesn’t have to consult residents on any subsequent improvements. “Only the city gets to decide how it spends the TIF money that it has collected,” says Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. “The community usually has no say.” In the case of the Klee building, however, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association clamored for the opportunity to give input. “We repeatedly asked if we could see the proposals,” says architect Ellen Stoner, chair of the association’s economic development committee. “We sent out a formal letter of request to everybody and his brother.”

Finally last April city planning officials held a community hearing on the three proposals. “I was excited,” remembers Eddie Cortes. “I thought we were going in the right direction.” The developers made presentations and took questions from a crowd of about 150, and while “the city made it clear that no vote was to be taken,” Stoner says, the neighborhood association handed out forms asking what people thought. The sampling, though small, showed strong support for Poter and weak backing for Pusateri Sandberg–but that firm’s enthusiasm was hardly dimmed. “We were happy with how it went,” says Sandberg. “Ours is kind of a funky proposal, and no one was throwing tomatoes.”

The Pusateri Sandberg proposal does have backing from the Portage Park Center for the Arts, a local nonprofit housed in an old Lutheran church on West Dakin. “Levar’s ward is turning into condo after condo,” says Jennifer LaCivita, the center’s executive director. “Why would you accept a proposal from a developer who wants to shove in more condos? The retail that’s come to Six Corners lately–like the Gap–has failed. More retail isn’t the answer. But residential space for artists would bring a breath of fresh air. These are people who would work and shop in the neighborhood.”

“I recognize the need for an art center, but we already have one,” says Eddie Cortes, who supports Poter’s plan. “Putting a lot of artists into the Klee building would be a bad move. Artists are piss-poor. They don’t have money for one of Sandberg’s apartments, unless they are doctors or lawyers who paint on the side. A ritzy-titsy art gallery on the first floor isn’t going to put an economic punch into Six Corners….We need major retail so that, like I say, we don’t have to go to the suburbs to buy things.”

In September the city eliminated George Ardelean’s proposal. Community support continues to be split between the Poter and Pusateri Sandberg plans. Thomas Allen, alderman of the 38th Ward (which includes two of the six corners), likes the Pusateri Sandberg proposal’s potential to attract arts-savvy and upwardly mobile Chicagoans. “My perception of our neighborhood is that it’s in the incoming path of–I don’t want to say yuppies–but, let’s say, people from Lakeview, Bucktown, and Wicker Park,” he says. “That group is the advance of gentrification. They are coming in our direction, and they’re discovering our good but cheap housing stock. With Pusateri, the apartments [in the Klee building] would go to the demographic group I’m describing, not exclusively to artists.”

Allen says he’s not altogether averse to the Poter plan but thinks it makes too much of providing parking and securing an anchor tenant–as if this were the Six Corners of the 50s, presuburbia. “That’s just some dream,” he says. He also faults the $15 million Poter plan for draining off more TIF money–reportedly $1.7 million–than the Pusateri Sandberg proposal, which asks for just $200,000 in TIF assistance. Plus, the Pusateri Sandberg approach “is innovative and different,” he says, “and that always appeals to me. It would put a spotlight on our neighborhood and revitalize it.”

Alderman Levar, on the other hand, favors Poter’s plan “because Poter has additional land, and so he’ll have additional parking.” But–in a departure from the tradition of aldermen themselves determining what’s optimal for their wards–Levar says he’s leaving the ultimate decision up to the city.

Back in April the Department of Planning promised an announcement on the Klee building in 60 days. None has come. “Our people are working as hard as they can on this,” says department spokesman Pete Scales. “It’s kind of a complicated process, and we’ve asked the developers for more information.”

“No one is telling us what the glitch is,” says the neighborhood association’s Adrienne O’Brien. “Maybe it’s because half the community is for the artsy proposal and half is for Poter–and no one wants to get crucified for a bad decision. But the Klee building has been vacant for five years, at least the commercial space has, and we’re sick and tired of it.”

Eddie Cortes certainly is. “The city is playing politics,” he says, “and it’s all being done behind closed doors, to benefit a select few.”

“Some things don’t happen overnight,” counters Levar. “Now Eddie Cortes is a great fireman and Mrs. O’Brien is a great community leader, but I have a lot of other things on my plate for the 45th Ward–like getting a city budget passed.”

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