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🗣🎤🎶No One Ever Is To Blame🎶

"What's happening with the store?" This question is an inevitable part of everyday for me. It's gotten to the point where I contemplate avoiding social settings just to get away from it.

If you have asked me this question recently and my response was a long, heaving sigh followed by an eyeroll, please do not think me rude. When it comes to my relationship with the commercial real estate development of Forty Acres Fresh Market's first store, Facebook has the best description: It's complicated.

I've been intentional about providing project status updates. As you may already know, the latest sticking point in the unending quest for a construction permit is landscaping.

While it would be easy to point the finger at the city of Chicago and claim they are the reason why shovels have yet to hit the dirt, that would not be 100% accurate or fair.

I would be remiss to simply complain about the current state of affairs without being transparent about how and why we are here. Settle in because 🎶if I am gonna tell it, then I gotta tell it all🎶 so that you understand the complexity of commercial real estate development that I damn sure did not when I started.

2 Years, 8 months, 6 days, and counting

We secured the site of the former Salvation Army on October 22, 2020. If I knew then what I know now I never would have announced the property acquisition at that time.

I was impossibly naive when I made this video. Getting the site felt so monumental at the time, I thought that had to be the biggest hurdle to clear on the way to opening day.

While my current answer to questions about store progress is focused solely on waiting for a construction permit, the permit process only constitutes 10 months of this almost 3 year journey.

It took nearly 2 years of team building, designing, redesigning, pricing, value engineering, and more redesigning to move from concept to construction documents that were ready to submit for permit at the end of August 2022.

This is a timeline of all the activities from closing on the property to submitting our permit application.

November 2020 - January 2021: 2 Request For Proposal processes to select project architect. Latent Design was selected.

February 2021 - early May 2021: Architect onboarding and phase 1 store design meetings.

Mid May 2021 - September 2021: Store designer and equipment consultant added to the team. Complete store fixture plan and schematic design.

August 2021 - October 2021: Request for Proposal process for project general contractor. Application submitted for Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant.

November 2021 - August 2022: Project pricing and other exercises in futility including:

  • Exploration of raising the building's roof to gain more ceiling height (8 weeks)

  • Attempting to get the city of Chicago to widen a residential street to accommodate the turning radius of a semi truck (a whole baby could have been conceived and born)

  • Designing an elevator between the ground floor and basement

  • Outfitting the basement for occupancy and bag packing operations

and other time consuming rabbit holes that never made it into the final design.

I don't want to say that we didn't know what we were doing. There are decades of architectural, construction, engineering, and grocery expertise on this development team. But all of those years of experience had never built a Forty Acres Fresh Market.

There was no prototype from which to work. I remember the day my architect asked me for my store plan. I looked at her like

I couldn't even develop a model store layout without knowing what space we would eventually occupy. Plus the 5,000 square foot store I had in mind went out the window when we purchased a 12,000 square foot building.

This team truly started this project from green fields, working around the limitations of a craptacular structure. It took me time to discover how I wanted the space to function. Also, my design team was trying to get me all the items on my wishlist (RIP to my banana storage closet).

That took some trial and error. When it comes to rehab projects ideas can take weeks to flesh out just to determine feasibility. First it has to be designed. Then it has to pass through structural engineering, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical assessments before it gets back to me just so I can say,

Every bright idea that is ultimately rejected is four to six weeks of work down the drain.

I am beyond excited about the final concept. However, I admit that we took our sweet a$$ time getting to it.

Hot Potato

As long as the design process was, at this moment the bottleneck on this project path is the construction permit.

Several well meaning people have offered advice and connections to speed things up.

"Have you talked to the Alderman?"

I have Alderman Taliaferro on speed dial. He and his staff have been champions of this development from day one and continue to work with city departments to get us everything from an alley access permit (granted) to a two-way street ordinance (pending).

I have a sneaky suspicion that he had something to do with our Alternative Code Approval Request (ACAR) for fire prevention being approved.

"You need to call the State Rep!"

Talked to him two days ago.

"Don't you know the mayor?"

Although Mayor Johnson is an Austin resident and has even shopped at a Forty Acres Fresh Market popup or two, I don't have a direct line to his office.

And if anyone with any pull contacted the Chicago Building Department right now and asked them what's the hold up with our permit, they'd tell them

And that would be true. At this moment the Building Department does not even have our application. It is back in the development team's hands to address the latest comments and corrections from Zoning. If the revisions were not submitted today then we are at 22 days and counting since the city released the application back to our team.

Team Effort

Technically, the ball is in our court.

Sometimes the city's questions are really just a matter of a reviewer not reading what's on the application page, prompting the architectural equivalent of, "PER 👏🏼MY👏🏼PREVIOUS👏🏼E-MAIL!" to point out what's already there.

However, not all of the comments are that simple to resolve. Remember earlier in this tome when I mentioned all of the eyes that needed to review those design whims that came into our heads? Well it's no different when the city sends questions or corrections to our construction documents.

It takes a village to construct a building. Great drawings and design features are only the first layer. Whatever you design has to actually stay upright and function once it's built.

When we selected Latent Design to be the architect of record for this building rehab, we were also choosing nearly half a dozen additional consultants for engineering, landscaping, HVAC, and more. The architect is akin to the conductor, bringing these different disciplines together to create a cohesive, functional design.

As important as I like to believe myself to be, I am not Latent's only client. In turn, Latent is also not its consultants' only one either.

That means no matter how much we're spending for their services, they are not at our beck and call. When the city asks for changes that we cannot evade, the people responsible for that discipline need time to get the work done.

Sometimes that work takes a few days. Others it could be more than a week. There are times when we have to work around a key team member's time off (am I bitter that my architect is vacationing in Greece while I am stewing in Chicago's literal smoke show? Yes.)

When I connected with the architect last week Thursday, she informed me that the revisions from the landscape consultant were due back to her team the next day. That means she gave them two weeks to complete their part. People, that's what we call lead time.

When we resubmit our application we will be requesting yet another waiver to circumvent a city request that doesn't work for this project. The short story is that we do not want to lose parking spaces to install landscape islands in the parking lot per the city's directive.

We need an Administrative Adjustment granted to have this requirement waived. Administrative Adjustments are a minimum 45 day process.

Imperfect People in an Impossible Process

When the whole story is told it's difficult to pinpoint a single party to blame. Yes, I will die on the hill that it took a certain code discipline way too long to do its first review of our application (I'm looking at you 🔥🧑‍🚒).

However, what do I expect when there is one person who approves that discipline for the entire city? That means depending on how many applications are already on that person's desk, a permit applicant who submits an application today may not even get reviewed until August or September.

That is nearly a full business quarter with no movement on their permit. If the developer has a mortgage on the property that is almost 3 months of payments they have to make and more time until the site can generate revenue (by being open for business).

Maybe people could live with that when interest rates hovered near 0% for years. Now that rates are closer to 7-8%, not so much.

On top of the backlog that sits on some code reviewers' desks, the comments come back piecemeal, and making changes in one discipline could trigger a rereview of a discipline that was previously passed.

Our application cleared zoning the first time but got kicked back to it upon our resubmission.

It is known that the building code cannot apply equally to every construction project. That is why there is a process to apply for waivers. I do not begrudge the city anything that it has asked of us to meet its code requirements.

I want to be clear. As frustrated as I am with this process, I do not feel as though I'm being stifled by government regulations. In the case of Zoning, I think the city is 100% right to require additional landscaping.

Green space is critical to not just the neighborhood aesthetic, but also to temperature control, wildlife, and air quality (which we desperately need today). I'm not against landscaping the property. I just can't have it incorporated into an already small parking lot that is intended to serve two businesses and accommodate semitrucks for loading and unloading.

I don't mind going through the waiver process, but it would have saved us at least two months if we could have gone through these processes concurrently rather than consecutively.

We spent all of April and a good chunk of May waiting for approval on our fire prevention ACAR. The Administrative Adjustment process for Zoning could have been happening at the same time. Instead we did not even know we'd need to do this until we received the comments more than two weeks after getting our ACAR approval.

🎶Am I The Only One?🎶

This is not just a me problem. I served on Mayor Johnson's transition subcommittee for Economic Vitality & Equity and multiple members voiced strong concerns about the morass that is the city's permitting process.

Last week at the Austin African American Business Networking Association meeting I may have directed some pointed comments about the difficulty in getting a permit to a Business Affairs and Consumer Protection deputy commissioner.

After the meeting several people approached me to commiserate. This is not an issue of me and my team not knowing how to navigate the process or call in favors. Others with far more experience are having similar issues.

We are doing all of the things and it will still be at least a year between when we first submitted for permit and when one is issued.

I am not documenting this odyssey because I am in search of a silver bullet to get me a permit yesterday (but if you have one I will not reject it). My aim is simply transparency and to shine a light on the reality of commercial development.

It is not fair for a community to continuously drive by a "Coming Soon" sign affixed to a vacant building and wonder why the promised business has not soon come. Not knowing sows skepticism and I cannot have a successful business if I lose credibility with the people who I expect to be my customers.

Also, I know that there are others who want to build grocery businesses in communities just like Austin. Heck, the Austin Community Food Co-op is trying to get another store up and running in the neighborhood. Although I did not easily come by the knowledge I now have (if someone told me it was going to be like this I likely would have kept my a$$ in corporate), and firmly believe that the game is to be sold and not told, I do not mind sharing my journey so that it may prepare others. To paraphrase Jay-Z, "Liz did that, so hopefully you won't have to go through that."

So there it is, the whole story to date. If you found this tale of woe interesting please leave a comment or share it with others. And next time you see me and want to ask about the store, in the words of 112, "🎶You already know🎶"


Jul 06, 2023

You are a great writer, and I think you are too nice to the city. Many years ago, we planned to build a church parking lot and after a couple of years of engineering and zoning work abandoned the idea because it would have cost more than $200,000 to get 8 or 9 spaces. Storm sewer, exterior landscaping, fence, tree in the middle, lighting, paving. All good things, but as with you, too much for the size of the project. At least the land now is being used as a community garden, which is a higher calling than a parking lot, so maybe for the best. James Kane, Third Unitarian Church


Jun 29, 2023

Thank you for taking the precious time to share your journey. Hang in there and stay strong. I have learned that - things don’t happen to you - they happen for you. Your blessings are there and there’s more to come.


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