With demolition of The Plaza comes promise of better things

  • Written by Dermot Connolly


Evergreen Plaza Shopping Center’s walls started tumbling down last week, when demolition of the largely vacant landmark at 9500 S. Western Ave. began, in order to make way for a new retail development now in the planning stages.

“It’s a sad day but a happy day too. We had to move forward with the project,”” said Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton, who watched as demolition equipment started tearing down the walls of the former Montgomery Ward department store Oct. 7. He and a few of the DeBartolo development team actually put the first few dents in the walls by swinging sledgehammers at the bricks before the heavy machinery moved in.

“Do I need a (union) card to do this?” Sexton joked.

Evergreen Plaza opened in 1952 as an open-air plaza, and was enclosed in 1966, making it one of the first suburban shopping malls. Like many of the people who gathered to watch the demolition start, Sexton grew up in the village and recalled spending a lot of time there growing up.

He described real estate developer Arthur Rubloff as a genius for designing and building the shopping center. During its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, Evergreen Plaza had more than 120 stores, as well as a movie theater, but vacancies led to the main mall being shuttered in 2013.

Carson’s department store, which was an anchor of the shopping center since it opened, has remained open and will remain open throughout the construction process. The existing building will only be razed after the business relocates to a new site within the new development, to be called Evergreen Park Marketplace, which will include 30-40 stores.

Applebee’s restaurant which is also located on the site, will also remain open. Sexton said that because negotiations are ongoing, he could not say exactly which stores would be coming, but some big names are under discussion. He and other village officials said earlier this year that a movie theater will not be included.

“I think it is good for the whole area, not just Evergreen Park. It is big for the Southland, from our neighbors in (Chicago neighborhoods), Ashburn, Mt. Greenwood and Beverly, to Oak Lawn and all the southwest suburbs,” said Sexton.

The redevelopment is expected to take about two years to complete. Jay Adams, a representative of DeBartolo, said the demolition will be done carefully because of asbestos and other hazardous materials must be handled in an environmentally correct manner.

“We’re going to miss it, but we’re looking forward to what is coming next,” said Evergreen Park resident Carol Simpson, who was watching the demolition with her longtime friend, Shirley Hudson. Both said they have many happy memories of shopping at the mall, particularly during the holiday season.

“It’s been closed for a while. New is always good, and it will bring positive changes to the area,” said Simpson.

Hudson noted that she belongs to a group that used to walk the mall for exercise every morning, and still continues to walk outside, weather permitting, since the interior mall was closed.

“Carson’s is very welcoming to us when the weather is bad,” she said.

“I’m sad to see it go. This was always my favorite mall,” said Bianca Jones, as she came out of Carson’s and saw the machinery at work. “If something new is being built, that is good too.”
          Shanita Hester-Morgan, who said she shopped at the mall for more than 20 years, was among a group of laborers and tradespeople who came seeking jobs with demolition and construction crews. “I’m so glad that something new is coming here. I am trying to get a job with the demolition company,” she said.

“We’re trying to put the (job-seekers) in touch with the right people, so everyone can benefit,” said Sexton.

'My heart is broken into a million pieces' -- St. Laurence QB leads team to win a day after his father died

  • Written by Jeff Vorva


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Photo by Jeff Vorva

St. Laurence quarterback Alex Martinez looks over a banner presented to him after Friday night’s win over Aurora Christian while coach Harold Blackmon looks on. Martinez’s father, Rich, died the day before.

Thursday morning started out pretty well for St. Laurence senior Alex Martinez.

The football team’s quarterback was a little more than 24 hours away from trying to lead his team to a fifth victory, which would likely put the Vikings into the playoffs. He was featured on the sports front page of a daily newspaper, sharing the page with the Cubs big win over Pittsburgh.

Life was really good for Martinez.

Then came the afternoon.

During practice, he found out his father, Rich, suddenly died at age 48 causing Alex to tweet “My heart is broken into a million pieces.”

On Friday, his friends, classmates and teammates tried to mend some of that broken heart.

Martinez said there was no doubt he was going to play Friday night and he threw for four touchdowns and ran for another as the Vikings beat Aurora Christian, 63-24 in Aurora.

After the game, coach Harold Blackmon gave a speech and had Martinez stand up. The signalcaller was presented with an autographed ‘W’ banner which was made popular by the Cubs.

“That was great for them to do that,” Martinez said.

Blackmon said the banner was one of the players’ ideas.

“Our kids really embrace family,” the coach said. “We all grieve with Alex. In the pregame speech we said for a few hours we wanted to get him to normalcy and doing something that’s fun. Alex’s dad loves the Cubs so they decided to give him a banner. We take care of our own.’’

Martinez said there was no doubt he was going to play in this game.

“As soon as I heard the news, I heard people say ‘you should be with your family’ and ‘you shouldn’t play.’ He would have not wanted that. If I would have even thought about not playing he would not have liked that at all.’’

Before the game, players formed a circle in the middle of the field and prayed for the Martinez family.

“That was a very class move by Aurora Christian,” Blackmon said.

Rich was a Chicago fireman and members of his house made the trip to Kane County to support the family.

Martinez said he learned a lot of perspective in a short amount of time.

“Football is just a game at the end of the day,” Martinez said. “It helped take my mind off of it for two hours. But the game is over and it goes right back to it.’’


Gun rumor shakes Shepard

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

A rumor of a gun being on campus resulted in a lockdown at Shepard High School in Palos Heights for most of Monday afternoon.

After the students were released about 3 p.m., school officials said a BB gun had been turned over to authorities, but it was unclear whether the weapon was ever inside the school. Two students were being questioned by Cook County Sheriff’s Police, who conducted a search of the school.

All after-school activities, including sports practices and games, were canceled on Monday. Officials said Cook County police would do “a thorough search of the building with the help of the Cook County Canine Unit to ensure the building is safe for school tomorrow.”

Dozens of concerned parents congregated outside the school at 13049 S. Ridgeland Ave. during the lockdown, which lasted from 12:30 until 3 p.m. During that time, students and teachers stayed behind closed doors in classrooms, the cafeteria or whatever part of the school they were in while, while Cook County Sheriff’s Police worked with the administration to investigate the incident.

With the most recent mass shooting in which nine people and the gunman were killed last Thursday at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., on their minds, many of the parents waiting anxiously for news outside were texting with their sons and daughters inside.

Some of the students shared a photo with their parents of a student allegedly carrying a gun on school bus, but the photo seen on one smart phone was dark and unclear.

“This is the second incident in a week,” said David Edwards, of Alsip. He and other parents, including Margaret Wojtas, of Palos Heights, and Angel Hill of Crestwood, referred to a similar rumor passed around on social media about someone bringing a gun to school caused them to keep their children home for a day about a week ago.

“Like this, (the earlier incident) was a rumor. Some girl said something about a gun but nothing came of it. People were understandably afraid. We take every rumor and every bit of gossip seriously,” said Bob McPartland, a spokesman for School District 218.

The last statement issued by the administration after the lockdown, stated that “The investigation for a possible weapon has been completed. A BB gun has been turned over to authorities. The investigation has confirmed that a BB gun was brought on a school bus by a student and eventually given to another student who took the BB gun home earlier this morning.”

Officials said in the statement that “we cannot confirm at this time if the BB gun was in the school but we can confirm that the Cook County police are in possession of the BB gun and continue to question the students involved.’

“School safety is always our primary concern and we will always take any precaution to ensure student and staff well-being.

Elsewhere on Monday, a bomb threat that was received about 6 p.m. at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn caused evening classes at that school to be canceled.

       Even before the incidents on Monday, the mass shooting in Oregon was also on the minds of administrators of local colleges this week, but they all expressed confidence in their security systems already in place.

“Our hearts go out to all of those involved,” said Karla Thomas, executive director of media relations for St. Xavier University, a school with 4,700 students at 3700 W. 103rd St., in Chicago. “We always try to be prepared. We have campus police who work with the Chicago police,” she noted.

“Whenever anything like this happens (we take note) but we’ve got every T crosses and I dotted,” said Mark Horstmeyer, director of college relations in Palos Hills. He said that school, at 9000 W. College Parkway in Palos Hills, has 17,000 students and its own police force.

'Bit of sadness' as demolition begins at Evergreen Plaza

  • Written by Joe Boyle

Demolition proceedings began yesterday for The Plaza, a mall that had been in existence for over 63 years in Evergreen Park but had fallen on difficult times in this century.

Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton was scheduled to attend the first phase of the demolition. Plans to demolish the once iconic mall was finalized this spring after several false starts. Sexton admits that part of Evergreen Park history is being leveled for a newer upscale facility.

“There is a little bit of sadness about this,” said Sexton on Monday. “My parents used to bring me shopping here for my Easter clothes and other things. We used to go to the Plaza before we moved here.”

Sexton, who has lived in the village for over 40 years, said that unfortunately times have changed and The Plaza was a victim. Once the demolition proceedings are complete, construction of the outdoor Evergreen Marketplace will take place. The majority of the new stores will face Western Avenue.

“Naturally, all of us smaller municipalities are looking for ways of raising more revenue,” said Sexton. “This is a challenge but you have to stay on top of things.”

The Evergreen Marketplace, according to Sexton, will have at least 20 to 25 stores depending on how many outlots are added.

“Dick’s Sporting Goods and Whole Foods have expressed an interest and they are still talking. But nothing has been confirmed yet,” added Sexton.

The Plaza, formerly known as the Evergreen Plaza, essentially closed in 2013 after it had been in foreclosure since 2011. Most stores ceased operating on May 31, 2013. Currently, a Planet Fitness is in operation along the west end of the mall facing 95th Street. An Applebee’s restaurant was drawing steady business on Saturday from an outlot on the north end of the mall facing Western Avenue.

A Carson’s has been operating on the south end. Enterprise Car Rental has had a business on the south end facing Western Avenue. Sexton said the Carson’s will be rebuilt with plans to have it operating again by Thanksgiving in 2016.

Based in suburban Detroit, Lormax Stern Development Co. is coordinating the Marketplace project with DeBartolo Development from Tampa. Ecco Demolition Contractors from Markham is taking care of the demolition.

The Evergreen Plaza opened in 1952 as an open-air shopping center developed by Arthur Rubloff. This was considered the first mall in America. The first tenants were Jewel and Kroger grocery stores and Carson’s. A small department store called The Fair later opened. Woolworth’s, Lytton’s and Walgreens were added.

The rows of shops that were added in that decade and into the 1960s were new at the time. The mall was enclosed in 1966, which was a unique feature during that period and quickly copied.

In the 1970s, The Fair store became Montgomery Ward. The mall has been expanded many times over the years. A food court was added in the 1980s.

But The Plaza began to see a dip in sales in the 1990s due to competition from Ford City on Chicago’s Southwest Side and the opening of the Chicago Ridge Mall in 1981. Orland Park Mall began to draw more shoppers from the south and southwest suburbs.

Changes that began in 2000 resulted in a high turnover rate at The Plaza. Montgomery Ward closed in 2001 as the whole chain went under. This left a huge vacancy near the north end of the mall. Circuit City and Walgreens both closed in 2005.

A fire caused extensive damage to holiday decorations in December 2007. The mall had to be closed for two days. The recession that gripped the nation in 2008 had a negative effect on The Plaza. The former Wards, a 225,000 square foot structure, could never fully be leased after it closed.

Sexton believes better days are ahead. The mayor said he will always have fond memories of the mall he shopped at going back to his youth.

“Well, the history of The Plaza has to go back to Arthur Rubloff, who had the foresight to open the mall,” said Sexton. “They had quality shops and that was the difference. Now we are going to get back to quality shops with the Marketplace.”

Storm sewer upgrades OKd for Hickory Hills

  • Written by Sharon L. Filkins

It was long awaited, but news of the hiring of a contractor for storm sewer improvements announced at the Sept. 24 council meeting in the City of Hickory Hills, brought joy to Miguel Garcia and his family, as well as other residents in the area of the 83rd Court and 89th Street intersection.

Because the Garcia family was present, Mayor Mike Howley moved the agenda item to first place.

“I know they are anxious to hear this news and there is no reason to make them wait,” he said.

Bringing the good news was Village Engineer Mike Spolar, who announced a project contract was awarded to Len Cox & Sons for storm sewer improvements at the intersection at a cost of $374,531. Spolar said Cox & Sons was the lowest of four bids. The company has previously done work in the village.

Other bidders were Riccio Construction Company, MQ Construction and Hasse Construction Company.

Spolar said the work is expected to start within the next two weeks with an estimated completion date in November, weather permitting.

The Garcia family and other residents first came before the council in January of this year complaining about severe flooding at the intersection of 83rd Court and 89th Street. The problem was so bad that the Garcia family’s home was flooded last year, forcing them to vacate until it could be repaired.

According to council meeting minutes, it was the first time the council had learned of the problem. The residents returned numerous times during the spring, while the city was investigating the situation.

“We are so sorry that you have had to go through all this, we thank you for your patience with us as we worked to find a resolution,” Howley told the family.

Approval of the contract with Cox & Sons was a unanimous vote by the council members, followed by a round of applause.

In other matters, the council agreed to move forward with a portion of its Water Meter Replacement Program. Eighty-five meters, which were installed in 1988, will be replaced in Section Six of the village, which is east of Roberts Road and north of 95th Street. Cost of the replacement is $120,000.

Village Treasurer Dan Schramm stated that because of the cost involved in replacing the meters, further discussion is needed before the program proceeds. “This will be on the agenda for the Oct. 22 Committee of the Whole meeting,” he said.

Other business included approval of a request from Kelly Gontarz and Brent Wortell, owners of the Perfect Paws grooming salon, 8700 W. 95th St., to add boarding of animals to the services they offer. Currently they offer grooming and day-care.

Ald. Thomas McAvoy (3rd) asked how many animals could be accommodated in the facility and also how they would be monitored.

Wortell replied that the facility could accommodate up to 15 animals and that someone would be on the premises overnight. “We will have a night-shift,” he said.

Also approved was a request from Walter Sura on behalf of the Hickory Hills Kiwanis. He asked the council to consider purchasing two boxes of peanuts at $50 each. The peanuts will go to the Kiwanis’ Adoptable Platoon program.

“We will do better than that, we will purchase four boxes, for $200,” said Howley. “This is for a great cause.”

The request was approved unanimously.

Several upcoming events were announced including the hours for trick-or-treating on Halloween, Saturday, Oct. 31. Trick-or-treating will be allowed from 2 to 7 p.m.

A big day is planned at the city hall on Saturday, Oct. 24, beginning with an Intergovernmental Agreement (between the City of Hickory Hills and High School District 230) 5K Run/Walk, at 9 a.m., check-in time is 8 a.m.

Also on Oct. 24, a children’s Halloween Party (ages 12 and under) for residents of Hickory Hills, is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. at the city hall. Ald. Debbie Ferrero (2nd) said there will be horse-drawn hay-rides, face-painting and photos (one per family) and a scarecrow contest.

Ferrero added that the Hills Chamber is also participating with a “Trunk-or-Treat” program. Chamber members will decorate the trunks of their cars, which will be parked in a circle in the city hall parking lot. Treats will be distributed to the kids as they walk the circle.

Ald. Mike McHugh (1st) was absent due to a work conflict.