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updated: 11/19/2020 9:56 AM

Sears demolition will be first step in $250 million Hawthorn Mall makeover

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The long-advertised $250 million repurposing of Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills is set to get off the drawing board.

The first visible signs of sweeping changes to recreate the 1970s-era mall will begin in early January with the demolition of the former Sears anchor store.

"This has been the culmination of a lot of work of a lot of people even through the COVID pandemic," said Village Manager Mark Fleischhauer.

"This is the single biggest redevelopment this community has ever been involved with," he added. "This is going to change the appearance (of the mall) dramatically for the better."

Removing Sears will make way for a "Main Street" flanked by a mix of apartments, restaurants, shops and assorted amenities designed as an attraction and gathering place, as well as a gateway to the mall proper.

Plans called Hawthorn Mall 2.0 have been posted for some time on the village's website. But as described Tuesday by a team led by mall owner Centennial Real Estate, those abstract ideas have come into focus as a real project within grasp.

"Tonight's meeting represents a major milestone in the history of Hawthorn Mall," said John Meshel, senior vice president of development for the Dallas-based company.

"We have assembled a best-in-class partnership and an extremely talented design (team)," he added.

Joining Meshel on a virtual run-through for the village board were representatives from Chicago-based Focus and Atlantic Residential of Atlanta.

The companies teamed to create the high-end residential portion of the Mellody Farm mixed use center across Milwaukee Avenue east of Hawthorn Mall.

The redevelopment's 562 apartments will be built in two phases.

"This is the opportunity to bring new life into what otherwise would be a conventional mall," said Vicki Lee, vice president of development for Focus.

Centennial is seeking various approvals and zoning code variations to proceed. Final approval by the board is considered a formality, Fleischhauer said, and is scheduled for Dec. 8.

Getting to this point spanned about two years of planning, discussion, negotiation and public meetings.

"We're extremely excited to get underway," Meshel said.

The cleared Sears site is expected to be turned over to Focus in April. The first residences will be available in the summer 2022 followed by retail openings that fall.

"It's a very aggressive schedule," Fleischhauer said. "Santa is coming to Vernon Hills early this year."

The village designated most of the mall as a tax increment financing district, which freezes property value for taxing purposes for up to 23 years.

The higher value resulting from development is taxed, but the added amount is put in a special fund to help fund the project.

That can be an issue for cash-strapped school districts.

In this case, the village and Hawthorn Elementary District 73 reached a tentative agreement to provide the maximum increment allowed from the residential portion of the project, rather than an amount based solely on the number of school-age students generated.

That's projected to be about $650,000 per year, or about $17 million over the 23-year life of the TIF district.

"I know this was very difficult but our board, the school board, and the community as a whole should be happy about this agreement," village Trustee David Oppenheim said.