Riverside’s village board on Feb. 16 voted unanimously to designate a portion of Harlem Avenue as a business district, hoping to spur sustainable commercial redevelopment in an area that’s been declining for years.

Trustees passed an ordinance setting the business district’s boundaries as Berkeley Road on the north and the alley immediately south of the Marathon gas station. Properties within the district are 2704 Harlem Ave., which most recently housed TitleMax; 2710 Harlem Ave., which formerly housed Riverside Cleaners; the largely vacant strip mall at 2720 Harlem Ave., which is being renovated; and the gas station at 539 Longcommon Road.

By the end of April, the village board will need to decide whether to impose a special sales of tax of up to 1 percent, which would be collected from businesses within the district and can be used to help pay for costs related to redevelopment within the district.

Such project costs could include public infrastructure improvements, property acquisition, site remediation and the renovation or construction of buildings.

Riverside since last summer has been trying to acquire the Riverside Cleaners property and at one time had a contract to buy it for $150,000. However, soil testing revealed the presence on contaminants related to the former dry cleaning business.

The village is still interested in acquiring the property, but at a reduced price to account for the cost of remediating the property. The owner, however, has been reluctant to deal.

“The village continues to try to negotiate a deal for the dry cleaner property,” said Village President Ben Sells. “It’s very frustrating. It’s taking forever, but we’re so close.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Milad Nourahmadi, a dentist who purchased the strip mall at 2720 Harlem Ave. last fall for $500,000, is in the midst of renovating the main retail space to house the Riverside location of his family dental practice, Shining Smiles.

Nourahmadi said he hopes the office will be open by April 3, and that he has been marketing two other vacant commercial spaces, which could house retail or medical-use tenants.

“I’m exploring all options to see what’s best,” Nourahmadi said.

The exterior of the strip mall has gotten a new coat of paint, and Nourahmadi said he’s replaced the entire roof and heating and air-conditioning systems.

“Everything was 10 years overdue,” Nourahmadi said of the condition of the building.

The next order of business will be to resurface the crumbling parking lot, improve the lighting and perhaps complete more facade renovations in spring or summer. 

The plaza will also get a new monument sign, and Nourahmadi said he’s talking with the owners of the Chinese restaurant in the strip mall, To Your Taste, to replace their sign and do some interior renovations. The new signs ought to be in place by June.

“If we’re modernizing the exterior, I want to make sure it matches the rest of the plaza,” Nourahmadi said.

Originally, Nourahmadi considered assembling property, including the dry cleaners and TitleMax properties, but a deal never came together. The owner of 2704 Harlem Ave. is still collecting rent from TitleMax and has shown no interest in selling at this time, both Nourahmadi and Sells confirmed.

With the cost of site remediation and demolition, the dry cleaners property became less attractive financially, said Nourahmadi, since the site likely will eventually be used simply for parking.

Nourahmadi has Shining Smiles locations in Bolingbrook, Naperville, Plainfield and Franklin Park and is planning to open new locations in Riverside and Joliet.

“My model is for family oriented areas in the suburbs,” said Nourahmadi. “We treat the whole family, and [the Riverside location] is the type of area we look for. That area was very interesting because of all the recent development, and it’s pushing south.”