When asked about the planned multimillion-dollar development that's supposed to revolutionize downtown Tinley Park, Sam & Jake's owner Tracy Leo smiled, rolled her eyes and pointed to her ice cream shop's outside patio.
"I'll be sitting out there in a rocking chair when that happens," Leo said, laughing.
Leo isn't criticizing the North Street Development project – she's a fan. But she hasn't seen any movement on the long-promised, $100-million project in the three-and-a-half years she's owned Sam & Jake's.
Approved by the village board in 2006 amid a flurry of public sentiment both for and against it, the privately funded North Street Development project would turn the area on the northeast corner of the North Street-Oak Park Avenue intersection into a mixed condominium-retail development called Tinley Park Place.
Proponents at the time argued the development would revitalize the downtown. Critics said the buildings and large movie theater anchoring the project would destroy the ambiance and plague nearby neighborhoods with traffic.
Four years later, nothing has happened.
Unable to arrange financing, the developers are waiting out the recession to try to get the project off the blueprints and into the downtown.
"We would look for a general improvement in the marketplace and we're not seeing it," said Patrick O'Leary of developer L&H Real Estate Group. "There have been improvements in the residential marketplace, but not enough for a project like Tinley Park Place."
Like many developments of its kind – mixed-use developments depending on condominium sales – the North Street Development was put on hold when the housing market crumbled, village Economic Development Director Ivan Baker said.
"This project, if not dozens of others (around Chicago) – hundreds across the nation – are all on hold," Baker said.
The game is on foot
After decades of the phrase "suburban growth" bringing to mind images of strip malls on recently paved farmland, suburbanites are looking for something different, Tinley Park Chamber of Commerce President Kim Scalise said.
They want close, convenient and car-free, she said. And that's where developments combining residential and commercial space come in.
"That's the focus: 'Where can I walk to?'" Scalise said. "And that seems to be the focus for every age group."
Walkability is a major part of the village's master plan for the area, Baker said. The village approved the Downtown Legacy Plan last year.
But development based on foot traffic is a "chicken-and-egg" situation, Scalise said. Which comes first?
"You need the businesses here for the people to walk to, but you need the people so the businesses come," Scalise said.
A walk through Tinley Park's downtown is far from bleak, especially compared to some of the vacant city centers in older suburbs and communities where development means a push into farmland.
Foot traffic from the Metra station brings people to the downtown stores. Locals and commuters fill the seats at century-old buildings that are home to businesses like J.W. Hollstein and Teehan's Irish Tavern, the latter of which would be razed to make way for the development.
There are 187 businesses in the downtown, even if they're not all as visible as Teehan's or Sam & Jake's, Baker said.
On Friday night, Oak Park Avenue bustles.
"People are always surprised by the amount of businesses and activity downtown," Baker said. "Everything from dentists' offices and therapists and barber shops to pizza parlors."
Although she didn't have specific figures at hand, Scalise said there has been "steady" growth in the number of new businesses in Tinley during the down economy.
"It's a little slower than we would have hoped, but that might be a given with the economy," she said.
But is slow and steady enough to win this race? Leo said she would like to see more projects that get people walking in the downtown.
"It would bring people in that haven't been to Tinley Park and see all the things this town has to offer," she said.