On November 9, 2022, Forty Acres Fresh Market announced the location of its first brick and mortar store in this Instagram video.
"In less than a year this is going to be a full service grocery store for the Austin community," I boasted.
That did not age well. It is now May 2023 and not only is the grocery store not open, construction on the building renovations has not yet started.
The questions I am most often asked are some version of "How is the store coming along?" and its fraternal twin, "Is the store open yet?"
First, even though the opening is well past the self-imposed deadline, I assure you that the store is still happening. However, commercial real estate development is a far more complicated process than I anticipated. Keep reading for a status update on where the project stands today.
Design and Permitting
The city of Chicago requires all projects with architectural plans to have a permit for construction. In a previous update, we announced that after a redesign of the loading dock area, the final architectural drawings were submitted to the Chicago Building department on December, 22, 2022 for permit issuance.
After the holiday lull, it wasn't long before our application started receiving technical plan review approvals.
Storm Water Management. ✅️
One by one, the city responded to our application across all of the code disciplines. Make that all of them, except Fire Prevention.
Week after week we waited for a response.
And waited some more.
Until one day in mid March, our permit expediter informed us that our plans did not pass the technical review for Fire Inspection.
Why didn't our design pass? It's all about clear exit routes out of the building in case of a fire, or in technical terms, an egress. Our submitted design had a secondary exit pathway from the retail sales floor through the backroom and out the back door. The path was to be delineated by hashed markings on the floor.
If we had submitted the application a few months ago our design would have been fine. Alas, Chicago's building code was recently updated and now a highlighted path is no longer good enough. The city of Chicago is taking a page from a former President's playbook and is telling us,
The city wants walls to section off the egress from the sales floor to the back exit.
The reviewer does not trust that floor markings are enough to keep equipment, pallets filled with inventory, and supplies from being left in the egress and blocking the path to the exit.
Our response to the city's requirement?
Why won't we build the walls and keep this project moving toward permit approval? The reason why it's a no go for our project is because creating a perpendicular hallway through the backroom impedes the functionality of the space.
A closer look at our current design shows that the loading area is at the east side of the building while cold storage is on the west side. The team unloads shipments at the loading area then brings them through the back of house out to the retail floor or into the cooler.
A solid 4ft high wall blocks this movement and would require the team to take an inefficient, circuitous route down a narrow hallway, onto the sales floor, and back into an additional entry point to the backroom that would need to be created.
Since no store would operate in that manner, adhering to the current code would likely trigger a redesign of the entire back room, and potentially even a large portion of the retail floor in order to regain movement flow. Redesigns are a minimum six to eight weeks process.
However, the store development team is not completely inflexible. To address the city's concerns we offered an alternative method for sectioning off the exit path. Bollards.
These immovable posts serve as barriers while still allowing free movement between them.
The reviewer's response:
Fortunately, the city understands that not every element of the building code is feasible in all spaces and allows up to two code waivers per project. The first week of April we submitted an Alternative Code Approval Request (ACAR) for a three person panel (which includes the original reviewer) to issue a modification to the code requirement.
We have entered week 6 of what is supposed to be a 2-4 weeks process. Since bollards were acceptable in the previous code, we are hopeful that the ACAR will be approved. If it is not, we have the opportunity to appeal. If the appeal is denied, I cannot be held responsible for my reaction.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Receiving a construction permit is a critical step to project completion. Remember the $2.5MM Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF) grant award that we announced in February 2022?
We cannot finalize that grant agreement without a construction permit. Without NOF funding we cannot close other committed sources of capital, including New Market Tax Credits. Without all of our funding we cannot proceed with construction.
Personally, my patience is wearing thin. I am itching to break ground so badly that I've taken to accosting city officials about the permit application. Time is money and I know that the longer it takes for construction to begin the more project costs increase.
An ever increasing project budget is a problem of which I want no part. Alas, a funding update is another story for another post. Until then, if anyone has an "in" with the Chicago Building Department, please help a sista out!