The Wilson Red Line train station is in dire need of rehabilitation — there aren’t any elevators for the handicapped and, overall, the rusty station has seen better days. The Chicago Transit Authority realized this and plans to start renovating the station later this year.
But for the owners of four stores who have for years made their living under the tracks, the renovation is not great news. Those four businesses will be forced to close, including Lakeview Foods, the oldest running business to operate at the Wilson station.
Michael Stempien, who inherited Lakeview Foods from his father, is taking the closing of his store — the loss of his livelihood and his family’s legacy — to heart.
The store had been operating for 25 years with a month-to-month lease from the CTA, Stempien said, when he was notified of the renovations in February.
The CTA said in an e-mail that it wanted to upgrade the Wilson station to beautify the neighborhood and better serve customers. The CTA worked with Ald. Helen Schiller (46th) to get $3 million in tax increment financing for the renovation.
Stempien said he pleaded with the CTA to keep his store, but to no avail; he was given 30 days’ notice to move his business. He won’t be able to open a new store due to losses he’s currently taking with his inventory, he said.
“I’m not going to have money to open a new store. We’ve taken a hit on all the inventory we have, because we’re selling it for less than what we bought it for,” said Stempien.
Stempien has begun selling his products at buy-one, get-one -free prices, and fears that he will have to throw away most of his unsold merchandise. And he has been trying to sell his equipment from the store on Craigslist.
“Hoping for the best and expecting the worst. There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “I just got dealt a bad hand. It sucks, but it’s legal.”
Other stores affected by the renovation, according to Stempien, are Popeye’s, The Wilson-Broadway Mall and Americana Submarine & Grill.
The Wilson-Broadway Mall, which also operated on a month-to-month lease, will relocate across the street from the Wilson station.
“We actually found a place across the street. We got lucky,” said My Linh Lee, who works at the Wilson-Broadway mall. Lee said her store also tried to protest the closure and were told they had to move out.
Lee pointed to the outcome of other stores and their sad departures. “It’s unfortunate for everybody else. They’ve been here for so long and they have to move out. Lakeview [Foods] has been there forever, since I was little,” said Lee.
Asif Poonja, owner of the Popeye’s restaurant at Wilson and Broadway, took out a $500,000 loan to renovate his restaurant; now, he says, it’s a wasted effort.
“All of my furniture will be gone. There’s not much I can say without [the CTA] getting mad. There’s no way we can get reimbursed,” said Poonja.
Stempien thought his relationship with the CTA was good enough to avoid closure. “I would think that 25 years of having a business relationship would’ve gotten me more than a 30 days’ notice,” said Stempien.
After the renovation, the stores will have to re-bid for their former locations.
“When the project is done in over a year, we’re not guaranteed this spot back,” Stempien said.