Big-name stores like Apple or Von Maur currently have no interest in Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, but that could change with a proposed monumental makeover of the 1970s-era shopping center and surrounding property, its owner says.
"We're investing now for the future," Steven Levin, CEO of Dallas-based Centennial Real Estate, told the village board Wednesday. "Apple is a pipe dream until we do what we're going to do. Then we have a fighting chance."
A sweeping transformation of the mall inside and out will result in "one of the most dominant and exciting properties and destinations and gathering places for the next 30 years," an impassioned Levin explained.
That would be accomplished by demolishing the former Sears and Carson's anchor stores and replacing them as well as areas outside the mall with new shops and restaurants, 450 luxury apartments, a gourmet grocery store and an outdoor gathering place for a variety of activities.
Levin and Oliver Robinson, the company's executive vice president of development and construction, were seeking informal approval for the general concepts before proceeding with a detailed staff and board review of various components, public hearings and possibly a town hall-style meeting for residents.
Everyone involved, including dozens of residents who packed the board room for the presentation, agreed the mall needs refreshing. Levin assured the board that Centennial was in it for the long haul and had no intention of making cursory improvements in order to flip the property.
"This mall has lost $50 million in sales since we bought it (in late 2015) and it's going down every day," he said. Centennial is not a "typical developer," according to Levin.
"We're a long-term owner. We're not developing a project to sell it," he said. "We made a several-hundred-million-dollar investment in this community and we are going to make a several-hundred-million-dollar-more investment in this community."
That investment won't make financial sense unless Centennial owns the property for a "very, very long time," he said. The mall itself will continue to be the centerpiece.
"Everything we're doing is to make it successful. We want this to be something that the community, the village (and) the people who live here are proud of," Levin said.
To prime the pump, the company plans to invest $5 million in the center court area.
Some residents were concerned a potential influx of students from the residential portion of the proposal would burden an already crowded Hawthorn District 73.
"We recognize the issue, but we're not building those kind of apartments," Levin said.
In any case, many aspects of the proposal, including a request for a financial incentive from the village, are yet to be determined, but the board supported the general concept.
"We haven't even begun to talk about the financing and the incentives and stuff, which is a huge component," said Trustee Thom Koch. "I'm willing to go forward and look at it, but there are a lot of questions still to be answered."
Mayor Roger Byrne underscored the significance of keeping Hawthorn Mall vital.
"It's important. It's very important," he told the audience. "Let's be nice to these guys. Don't treat them like the enemy."