By Mark Guarino | Special to the Chicago Tribune
A popular family restaurant in Lincoln Park is losing its lease at the end of the year, and residents fear its replacement could be something that might change the character of the neighborhood: a sports bar.
The news about the lease came as a shock to owners Susan and Kristin Tiritilli, sisters who opened Tilli’s Restaurant in 1996 at 1952 N. Halsted St.
“It was a kick in the stomach after being here so long,” said Susan Tiritilli. “We understand it’s big business, but on the other hand we’ve been paying an outrageous amount of rent here while keeping 65 employees.”
The developer who bought the building in 2008 said there was no choice since the restaurant has been paying “below market” rent. The arrangement was viewed as temporary, so the lower rent was tolerable, said Jeff Richman, general counsel for M Development, which is owned by Chicago developer Mark Hunt.
“We just want a tenant who will pay market rent for that location,” he said.
Residents learned at the August meeting of RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association that one tenant under consideration for Tilli’s space is Bull & Bear, a sports bar known for having beer taps at tables. Although the group does not object on principle to bars in Lincoln Park, members say that the area has enough and that family-oriented establishments are dwindling.
“I think the community seeks to retain its neighborliness, its livability and its character,” said Jeff Price, RANCH Triangle’s president.
The group will be sending M Development a list of questions it wants answered, including whether the new business would include open-air seating with televisions. Neighbors say such an outside venue would be intrusive.
Lincoln Park, with its median household annual income of $83,000 and about 70,000 people living within a 3-mile radius, is desirable for large chain stores and restaurants, said Thomas Bothen, associate director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. That includes sports bars and entertainment venues.
“It’s simply a unique market where the demand for [sports bars] outstrips the supply,” Bothen said, adding that what Lincoln Park is dealing with is no different from what rural communities face when Wal-Mart enters the market.
“For local retailers, they simply can’t complete,” he said.
But the current character of the neighborhood is what drew some residents.
“[A bar] would really generate the kind of noise and crowds that people who have moved into this area have moved here to get away from,” said David Abramowitz, who lives about two blocks from Tilli’s.
Abramowitz, who says that he and his wife, Rebecca, eat at Tilli’s every few weeks, said he hopes residents will band together to “keep out any unwanted replacement.”
Barb Oyebanji, who lives on the same block as Tilli’s, said that replacing it with a bar has the potential of contributing to a culture on Halsted Street “that can be very raucous.”
“I can’t imagine it will not be made much worse,” said Oyebanji, who says she has Sunday brunch each week at Tilli’s with her husband and 7-year-old daughter.
“You see people there from 80 years down to a stroller,” she said.
M Development’s Richman said Bull & Bear, which sells food, is “one of the potential restaurant users” the company is talking to. He would not list the others. He said the company is marketing the property only through word of mouth but is “looking to bring in a restaurant we think will be good for the neighborhood.”
Residents also worry that given the developer’s financial problems with some properties — including the shuttered Esquire Theater at 58-104 E. Oak St. and the former Cedar Hotel at 1112-1118 N. State St. — plans for the Tilli’s site might not materialize and the building could sit vacant.
A foreclosure lawsuit for a combined $50 million was filed against M Development by the lender for the theater and hotel properties. The company also faces a $13.5 million foreclosure lawsuit on a retail property in Lincoln Park.
Richman said the foreclosure lawsuits have no effect on the plans for the Tilli’s property.
He declined to say what market rent would be for the Tilli’s location.
Susan Tiritilli said that when she renewed the lease in September 2008 it was for about $38,000 a month, a huge increase from what she paid the previous owner in 2007. The amount was cut by a few thousand a month after negotiations with the developer, she said. Still, the restaurant was forced to cut back its dining budget, which led to a 40 percent drop in business, she said.
Vi Daley, 43rd Ward alderman, wouldn’t say whether she backs M Development, but said she’s waiting to hear more from RANCH Triangle. But the area needs restaurants, she said.
“We have Charlie Trotter’s, but not everyone can afford that. We need affordable-type places, especially for lunch,” Daley said.
A meeting about the future of the building is scheduled for Sept. 16 with the alderman and residents. But plans for the property will not include Tilli’s.