Thoughts on the old Applebee’s location

… and an update. It wasn’t just the RLB Applebee’s. The Franchise holder for all Applebee’s in Illinois went bankrupt a few months ago. There was a sale of assets, during which potential new owners would have a chance to make offers on any or all of the IL locations. The most profitable ones were snapped up quickly by another large Midwestern Applebee’s franchise holder; the rest were shuttered.

The recent Facebook post we made about the RLB Applebee’s closing generated our most views yet (just shy of 3,000!), and many comments. Also a question:

“Is there any plan to take a ‘survey’ of the RLB residents to find out what THEY think should take the place of Applebee’s?”

We started to answer this as a “Reply” to the FB post, but it got long enough to qualify as a Blog Post… so here we are.

[Caveat #1: Remember as we comment that none of our group are village officials.]
[Caveat #2: It’s going to sound like we’re slamming the idea of shopping centers, strip-malls, and franchises. That’s not our intent, we’re focusing on the misapplication of such entities. Some of them are great community partners, and go out of their way to ensure they work with whatever municipality they’re in, and provide fundraisers, “Cause Awareness”, donate food, provide meeting space, etc.]
[Caveat #3: We’re not worshipping the idea of a traditional small-town downtown as the ultimate fix-for-what-ails-us, but we do mention that model a lot because, in this part of the world, a “downtown” is what historically has come to serve as the marketplace for a village / town / city.]

We’re going to say “NO survey!“, based on recent and previous discussions w/village staff. The #1 rule (which goes very far in explaining why things are the way they are) is:
“We can’t tell people what to do with their property… unless they’re homeowners”.

Here’s the short answer, after which we get wordy: From the village’s perspective, there already is a plan in place: someone else owns the property, and it is their best interest to fill the vacancy quickly. Our zoning states what kind of businesses are allowed in each area. Businesses look for new locations with compatible zoning. The property manager shops for these businesses which will be a good fit for their properties. Ka-POW! We have a new Franchise! Simple, right?

This is a trade-off of having a shopping center… heavy loss of local control. Not only is all the real estate owned by “outsiders”, but a dozen or more businesses at a time as well constrained to play by “Franchise Rules”, and sending franchise fees out of our area instead of reinvesting them locally. Heck, we even lose the street space (where life happens) and the traffic and transit connections which would have been there. In a community setting, certain influences play a much larger role in deciding what to do with a property, like what types of businesses are already in adjacent buildings and storefronts.

Opening Soon

Now if the Rollins Crossing shopping center acreage was more conventional in build, a multiple-user, multi-story, nicely-dense, shared-parking format (like, oh, say a traditional small-town downtown, or it at least had STREETS), there would be a dozen or two different property owners, each with different degrees of attachment to the community, but each literally invested in the success of their endeavor or their business tenants. You might go to church with a building’s owner, or have them as a neighbor; they would be part of the community, be more accessible, and understand local issues.

Copyright Kevin Steele ; “Portraits of Queen West”

As opposed to corporate property owners, there’d be at least a little more willingness to entertain specific requests for types of shops or meet local needs, things like:
– something specifically different than all the same-across-the-country strip-mall offerings, a place with character, or soul, something unique to the village
– setting up a temporary art gallery while a retail space is empty (just the window space, or the entire ground floor)
– sidewalk sales
– place for a Farmer’s Market
– short-term rent option (as a “Business Incubator” practice) to help give a new local business an affordable start with facility and exposure, while shopping for a long-term tenant
– allowing local non-profit groups some short-term space to display and fund-raise…
– maybe even allowing two complimentary businesses like a coffee shop and a desert maker to share a storefront which individually they might not be able to afford.
– local museum

We’re CANNOT get ANY of these in a shopping center location (and only with a lot of work in a strip-mall), unless we (group of individuals or the village itself) buy back some of the property ourselves! The Corporate property owners (guaranteed to not be from around here)  are looking for guaranteed profitability, and loathe taking these icky, local risks… even if the local Franchisee is in favor.  For instance, the management of the local Buffalo Wild Wings would LOVE to expand to include outdoor seating, but as renters… “what’s built is built”.

BWW Patio

Buffalo Wild Wings patio and outdoor seating area. (Not ours, unfortunately…)

Sales of individual buildings to individual LOCAL owners can bring in a lot of life, and a lot of change. There could be an actual, effective “marketplace” and a new type of player at the table in the economic life of the village besides strip malls and shopping centers. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll find downtowns, public markets, bazaars… SOME kind of marketplace for each municipality, ’cause that’s what we humans DO! There is an intrinsic preferred “human scale” of size we prefer for the places in which we live and gather. Use-based zoning does not support that, but for many reasons is what gets built!

– When’s the last time you cut through an alley between buildings to get to the entrance of the dance club in the basement under the bakery?
– Sat outside and enjoyed a coffee with some friends at one of our sidewalk cafes?
– Window-shopped?
– Get drawn inside an eatery by the fabulous odors wafting out the door?
– Saw the storefronts of a whole side of the street decorated for the RLHS High School Homecoming?
– Enjoyed the local street musicians?

Enjoying the street musicians

[Photo: Dennis Proud]

We have virtually none of that.

MUCH tougher for us to do. These mono-block properties are zoned for certain uses, and (on behalf of the property owners), the property manager seeks appropriate tenants. Since it is a shopping center, that’s the “flavor” they’re looking for, serving customers who are driving to the location. (They’ll serve pedestrians and cyclists too… if they can make it there alive.)

The owner, manager, and whoever the renter (retailer) will be all want a profitable arrangement; a nationally-recognized franchise is usually the best fit because, frankly, that’s what all those acres are designed for! The village administration is also happy because they’re getting property and sales taxes. A vacant property, whether from a business outgrowing its site or failing, is still a vacant property.

If the village surveyed us as to what we wanted at the former Applebee’s location, and we asked for something which differed from the intended uses allowed by zoning, the Village Elders are put in a tough place. In trying to give us what we want, they’d be effectively “changing the rules” during the game, which the franchisees and property owners would not take kindly to at all. They’re trying to do business and make profit thanks to the very stability provided by large-scale property ownership and clear-cut zoning as provided by the village.

Now you want to change it? What else are you going to ask us to change? How many more times? Change is costly! Maybe we shouldn’t invest in RLB any more…”

All of this is an outgrowth of, decades ago, not having a plan for village growth or even just obtaining and holding on to some land for when proper planning could occur. Since we didn’t have a established plan for potential property owners and investors to consider and work with, they effectively ended up telling US what each property would be used for. The end result is what we have now. (This applies to the mish-mash of subdivisions as well!)

It’s nice to think about what could go into the vacant shopping center property… as a first small step towards redirecting the village towards what it could have been all along. However, unless some private investors lay down a LARGE chunk of change and purchase the property, it probably won’t start with the former Applebee’s location.

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