By Bob Uphues
Riverside's board of trustees took the first step toward creating a business district along a portion of Harlem Avenue last month, voting unanimously to convene a public hearing on the matter in February.
The public hearing for the Harlem Properties Business District will take place at the Riverside Township Hall, 27 Riverside Road, on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 7 p.m., immediately prior to the regularly scheduled village board meeting.
The proposed business district includes nine separate zoning parcels, along with public rights of way bordering them, including the properties at 2704 Harlem Ave., the former TitleMax building; 2710 Harlem Ave., the former Riverside Cleaners; 2720-28 Harlem Ave., a strip mall recently purchased by a dentist; and 539 Longcommon Road, the Marathon gas station.
If approved by the village board this year, the business district would be in place for up to 23 years and a special sales tax of up to 1 percent within the district can be used to provide revenue for public infrastructure improvements, building rehab and construction costs, and assembling property, among other things.
The earliest the village board could vote on an ordinance creating the business district is Feb. 16.
Business districts are different from tax increment financing districts, which also seek to spur redevelopment of blighted areas, in that there are no property tax implications. However, business districts allow municipalities to exercise certain powers to help development occur, such as eminent domain, issuing bonds and establishing the special sales tax.
Riverside officials targeted that stretch of Harlem Avenue, which essentially serves as a main eastern gateway to the village, as ripe for redevelopment. Right now, most of the buildings between Berkeley and Longcommon roads are uninhabited.
In 2016, the village put out a couple of requests for proposals, one seeking to begin the evaluation process for creating a business district, a formal process guided by state statute. Riverside chose the financial consulting firm Kane, McKenna and Associates as the firm to lead that process.
"This area is like a poster child for a business district," said Phil McKenna of Kane, McKenna and Associates during a presentation to village trustees on Dec. 15.
The village also sought development plans from real estate developers but received only one – from Dr. Milad Nourahmadi, who bought the strip mall at 2720-28 Harlem Ave. in October for $500,000.
The plan, obtained by the landmark through a Freedom of Information request, seeks to combine the strip mall property with the dry cleaner building at 2710 Harlem Ave. and contemplates the possibility of also including the property at 2704 Harlem Ave.
Riverside has made no decisions regarding any plan to redevelop property in the proposed business district. Each of the properties in the proposed district still is privately owned by different owners.
The village entered into a contract to purchase the dry cleaner's by the end of 2016, but only after doing further soil testing to make sure the site wasn't contaminated. A sale didn't materialize, however, and McKenna indicated during his December presentation to the village board that there were "environmental problems" within the proposed district boundaries.
The Landmark subsequently filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the final environmental assessment of 2710 Harlem Ave. That report concluded that the site "requires further remediation" and that dry cleaning chemicals in the soil extended south into the area immediately next to the building at a depth of 14 to 16 feet below ground.
Deigan and Associates, the firm that completed the assessment, recommended "complete excavation and off-site removal of the soil."
Village President Ben Sells indicated last week that the owner of the dry cleaner's had been uncommunicative in recent months. He confirmed that the village had a closing date on the property before Nov. 30, but the closing never took place.
"We're still waiting to hear from [the owner]," Sells said.
This story has been changed to correct the date of the public hearing. It is on Feb. 2