Emails Show Developer's Struggle To Find First-Floor Tenant For Uptown Building | WGLT

Emails Show Developer's Struggle To Find First-Floor Tenant For Uptown Building

Mar 23, 2020

A black box theater, a temporary post office location, and a long list of restaurants are among the many options considered to fill the vacant first-floor space at One Uptown—or the “missing tooth in a beautiful smile,” as the developer puts it.

Emails obtained by WGLT between developer Tartan Realty and Town of Normal staff show the lengths both sides have gone to try and fill that space, which has been vacant for over two years. They also reveal why it’s been so hard to do so.

“We, along with many others, see the vacancy as a blight on an otherwise very successful Uptown project,” Chris George from Tartan Realty wrote to City Manager Pam Reece in January. “Because of our significant financial commitment already invested in One Uptown and our desire to fulfill the original vision for the space, we are exploring creating a new restaurant concept for the space.”

One Uptown, on the western arc of the circle, was completed in late 2017. The Town of Normal has invested around $2.8 million in One Uptown, plus another $5.1 million in the adjacent Hyatt Place hotel.

While residents and Town of Normal staff are occupying the upper floors, the 6,700-square-foot, first-floor space remains vacant. The town’s development agreement required it to be occupied by a full-service restaurant, defined as a sit-down restaurant with an upscale menu and extensive beverage options.

Tartan's Hit List

In June 2019, Tartan had around 100 potential tenants on its “hit list,” mostly restaurants and spas, according to an Uptown One Pipeline Report shared with town staff via email. Some of those were just initial contacts, like Tartan leaving someone at an existing restaurant a voicemail. Others were not interested. Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurants said it was “too small of a market at this time,” as did the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant chain, according to the report. Lou Malnati’s reportedly said it wanted “to be on Veterans Parkway.”

One barrier is the cost to renovate and build out the inside of the space. Reece said in 2018 that could cost between $1.5 million and $2 million for a restaurant. It’s unclear what potential tenants are being quoted by Tartan for per-square-foot leasing costs. That information is not included in Tartan’s online marketing materials for the space.

“Initially we had the owners of The Gibsons Group tour the market and our site, which resulted in a meeting with staff. However, their concept was deemed too costly to be a viable option. We have also received limited interest from local operators, but either their use was not up to our standards or, more often, the capital requirement to ‘build out’ the space was too large of an undertaking for the operator to move forward,” Tartan’s Chris George wrote to town staff Jan. 13.

Tartan claims parking is another barrier—specifically the “lack of convenient grade-level parking,” George wrote. In January as they discussed the new restaurant concept, Tartan asked the town to commit a “portion of the Trail West site to remain as long-term convenient grade-level public parking” for 20 years, with free validation for restaurant patrons. Without that guarantee, “we have little hope of securing a restaurant to occupy the first floor of the project,” George wrote.

In a subsequent email to her staff, Reece suggested the town would not be guaranteeing 20 years of parking access. Another staffer wondered if valet parking would work. The issue remains pending.

“It’s been put on backburner for now due to COVID-19 response and preparedness,” Reece told WGLT. “Once things settle down a bit, I will have more information on moving forward on this issue.”

Other Options

In fall and winter 2018, the town and Tartan also discussed turning some of the space into a flexible live entertainment venue, possible a black box theater, emails show. A few months earlier, they discussed a temporary U.S. Postal Service location in the space, though in an email Reece raised concerns about that usage because it would not generate tax revenue. Those ideas did not come to fruition.

At times, the emails show friction between the town and Tartan as the vacancy dragged on.

In July 2018, Tartan floated the idea of dividing the vacant space in hopes that would make it easier to find tenants. But Tartan later withdrew that item from consideration.

“We were disappointed to hear that you wanted to withdraw the plan to divide the space into two leasable spaces,” Reece wrote to Tartan a few days later. “When I spoke with council members, there was an interest in supporting this approach.”

It’s unclear if Tartan is still considering dividing the space. Tartan’s Chris George and Doug Reichl did not return messages from WGLT seeking comment for this story.

More recently, emails show Tartan concerned that the town might consider leaving its office space inside the building, in part to reduce its current leasing cost. In a Jan. 28 email to Reece, Reichl said the town “vacating the building could have a materially negative impact, and the property is already negatively performing.”

When asked when the town is considering, Reece told WGLT: “Based on feedback from council, we will be looking at all options in relation to our lease agreement with Tartan.”

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