Aurora takes new stab at reinvesting in Restaurant Row
By Stephanie Lulay firstname.lastname@example.org February 10, 2013 6:28PM
Restaurant row in Downtown Aurora on Thursday, February 7, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 12, 2013 6:13AM
AURORA — A better economy, a city investment and an evolving downtown Aurora — is it enough to make another Restaurant Row deal work?
Under a plan first proposed publicly last month, Aurora businessman Vernon LaVia plans to bring a second location of Batavia-based Aliano’s, an Italian restaurant, to his building in the Row, located on West New York Street downtown.
The whole deal hinges on City Council’s vote on the city’s contribution of tax increment financing dollars toward the project on Tuesday night.
After years of false starts and rumors of the Billy Goat coming to Restaurant Row, why should the city kick more than $1 million to the project now?
Because so much has changed, LaVia said. Back in 2009, the economy was collapsing. Today, several of the properties of the block have been on the verge of foreclosure for years and money is starting to flow again.
“We already knew in September 2009 how bad things were,” he said. “(The project) in 2009 was brave and insane. Now, it’s a piece of cake.”
Add a better economy to a changing downtown — RiverEdge Park is set to open this summer, a new main library location is set to break ground and a booming Paramount Broadway series is packing them in — and LaVia said Aliano’s will be opening in an entirely different landscape than when he first bought 29 W. New York St. in 1997.
LaVia said he has a willing partner in branding Restaurant Row with Aliano’s owner Mario Aliano. He has committed to kicking $50,000 to $100,000 on branding his Aurora location.
LaVia, husband to State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, said for Restaurant Row, it’s now or never.
“If we don’t do this now, the likelihood is, that the entire block will be demolished at the city’s expense within five years,” he said.
Instead of becoming a thriving restaurant district, the empty buildings will become an eyesore, he said.
Bill Wiet, the city’s chief development officer, said if it wasn’t for the city’s commitment to kick TIF dollars to the project, a new Restaurant Row would not be happening.
“But for the use of TIF monies, would this project go? The answer is no,” Wiet said.
Aliano said once people step into his second restaurant in downtown Aurora, patrons will fall in love.
“I promise you that,” he said. “Except the casino, I don’t see anything that’s inviting (in downtown Aurora). I want to bring that ‘wow’ statement on New York Street.”
And if the proposed restaurant on the Fox River doesn’t work, “it’s so leasable to the next dream, it’s not even funny,” LaVia said.
The proposed Restaurant Row redevelopment deal hinges on City Council passing two agreements Tuesday night — one with LaVia, and another that sees the city buying a neighboring property in Restaurant Row.
If either deal fails, both deals will go bust, Wiet said.
The city has crafted a development deal with 5 Way LLC for properties at 29, 31 and 33 W. New York St., all part of Restaurant Row. LaVia owns 5 Way LLC.
Under the complex agreement, the city is committing $750,000 in TIF dollars to 5 Way LLC, the landlord that would come to own 29, 31 and 33 W. New York St. LaVia is current owner of the 29 W. New York property, formerly known as Bacci’s Pizzeria.
Under the agreement, LaVia would also become owner of the 31 and 33 W. New York St. properties, which are currently occupied by Chef Amaury’s Epicurean Affair. LaVia said Amaury Rosado’s restaurant will stay in place under the proposed deal and Rosado supports the new restaurant project.
Aliano’s would occupy the street level of 29 W. New York St., as well as the lower level of 29, 31 and 33 W. New York St. TIF funds will allow for a renovation of the property and a build-out of a deck facing the Fox River. Aliano’s will also occupy a new fully-enclosed addition attached to the east of 29 W. New York. That property is currently owned by the city.
Under the deal, if Aliano’s fails within three years, LaVia must find a replacement restaurant to occupy the space within six months.
The Aliano’s deal hinges on the city’s planned purchase of a property at 35 W. New York St.
The city aims to purchase the property, formerly known as the Lamplighter Tavern, for $280,000 using TIF funds from seller Marie F. Leach, according to city documents. The former Lamplighter property has been vacant for about eight years, LaVia said.
Wiet said the city may market the 35 W. New York St. property with the property next door at 37 W. New York St., formerly known as the Comfort Zone, a BBQ restaurant. Comfort Zone closed in Dec. 2011, and first opened in Sept. 2009 on the north side of Restaurant Row, a project by developer Steve Arwady.
About $500,000 in TIF funding was paid to Arwady. According to LaVia, by March 2011, the Arwady partnership pulled out of the Restaurant Row deal. In October 2011, the city sent a notice of default to the Row’s developer for lack of performance.
LaVia said the previous $500,000 in TIF funding the city kicked to Arwady’s deal was not wasted; the cash went to fund build-outs and necessary infrastructure improvements on the Row to get buildings up to code.
The 37 W. New York St. property has a built-out kitchen and handicapped-accessible bathrooms, Wiet said. The city may purchase the property at some point prior to marketing the two properties as one future restaurant.
Alderman Rick Lawrence, 4th Ward, said he plans to vote against the project Tuesday night. Lawrence owns a property in the block at 41 W. New York St. which is for sale.
Architect David Rawlings currently occupies the 39 W. New York St. storefront.
Lawrence said he has real concerns about the TIF-backed deal.
“Why are we still pursuing this concept of Restaurant Row there when you still have all of the same problems?” Lawrence asked. “We’re going to spend over $1 million to bring a pizza place/Italian food in there. Is there a market to handle another restaurant in that area? We don’t know that.”
If the city wants to buy 35 W. New York, they should wait until the property is foreclosed upon and pick it up at a much cheaper price, he said.
David Dorgan, chief development consultant with economic development group Seize the Future, said the time is now to redevelop the row. LaVia said a foreclosure could be tied up for years in court.
Lawrence said he was warned by city attorneys not to vote on the proposed deal at City Council because of his property ties to the block.
“That’s like saying I can’t vote on anything that could improve (my home’s) property value,” Lawrence said.
Other aldermen also raised questions about the Restaurant Row deal.
Alderman Allan Lewandowski, 9th Ward, asked why the city is buying a building to make this deal happen.
“What is our responsibility to purchase it? Why aren’t the developers purchasing 35 (W. New York) to clear the title?”
Dorgan said the city will own that building and will try to market it for a new restaurant project.
“You can’t clear the title of 31 unless we buy 35,” Dorgan said.