If things had gone differently for the Cubs in Tuesday night’s National League wild-card game, Wrigleyville sports bar Sluggers would have spent Wednesday gearing up to do what owner Steven Strauss called “a month’s worth of business in a week.”
Instead, after a 2-1 extra-innings loss to the Colorado Rockies, Wednesday marked an early return of what has traditionally been the sometimes sleepy offseason for Sluggers and the rest of the North Side neighborhood.
New hotels, apartments, restaurants and entertainment venues popping up around Wrigley Field — changing the face and feel of the area — are meant to boost the neighborhood’s status as a year-round destination. Now, at the start of the first offseason for several of the newcomers, Wrigleyville will begin testing that proposition.
If you build it, will they come? And if they come, will they make it past the shiny new offerings to the neighborhood stalwarts like Sluggers?
Longtime business owners say new hotels and restaurants will bring more competition, but the newcomers also could bring more customers by providing a wider selections of places to eat and things to do that don’t depend on the Cubs. While they’ve seen few signs of extra crowds so far, Strauss and others say they’re optimistic that a mixed-use development across from the park on Addison Street, which recently began leasing apartments and includes a yet-to-open movie theater and bowling alley, will have a bigger impact.
Much of the new competition that’s already opened is part of a bid by the Ricketts family, which owns the Cubs, to extend its control beyond the iconic ballpark to the surrounding streets. Counting the businesses on Gallagher Way — the plaza next to Wrigley Field — and the 173-room Hotel Zachary that opened across Clark Street this spring, there are more than a half-dozen new restaurants and bars adjacent to the ballpark developed by the Ricketts’ real estate investment arm, Hickory Street Capital.
Hickory Street Capital declined to comment, but the company has said community programs at the plaza during the winter, including a skating rink and an outpost of Chicago’s Christkindlmarket, drew about 200,000 visitors last year. (The Christkindlmarket won’t be back this year due to construction at Wrigley.)
What’s less clear is how many people who come for games, concerts or events on the plaza stick around afterward to grab coffee, a meal or a beer. Even when visitors do, some won’t venture beyond the adjacent Ricketts properties.
Larry and Leah Busse, who were visiting the ballpark from Atlanta on Wednesday, checked out the official team store on the plaza and planned to get coffee at West Town Bakery & Tap in Hotel Zachary.
Visits like that aren’t uncommon, said Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s a year of discovery for some folks. A lot of people are staying in that campus environment,” Martino said. “I think there’s plenty (of business) to go around; it’s just how you … find that niche that others aren’t offering.”
Jaime Gamez, owner of Big G’s Pizza north of Wrigley Field on Clark Street, said flashy newcomers like taco shop Big Star and barbecue joint Smoke Daddy have dented his sales a bit.
But even if the new restaurants make the dining scene more competitive, Gamez said he thinks all could ultimately benefit if the new options help people “see Wrigleyville as a food hub, not just a bar hub.”
“If that turns out, it will bring more people to the neighborhood, and this winter will hopefully illustrate that,” he said.
Gamez said he’s excited about Addison & Clark, the real estate project across from the ballpark near the eponymous intersection that will include a CMX Cinemas movie theater and a Lucky Strike bowling alley, along with apartments, restaurants and retail. He hopes Big G’s will be the neighborhood spot for new residents or visitors looking to grab a slice after a movie or round of bowling.
Since opening the restaurant in 2012, he said he’s relied on world of mouth, online reviews and unconventional pizza toppings like macaroni and cheese and s’mores to build a following. But he’s considering stepping up marketing efforts with promotions on social media or discounts for moviegoers with a ticket stub to get more exposure.
Businesses with longer histories near the ballpark, like Sluggers and fan apparel retailer Wrigleyville Sports, said they think efforts to keep prices reasonable, coupled with a loyal customer base, will insulate them from new competition.
Evette Lorenzo, assistant manager at Wrigleyville Sports, said she hopes that as construction winds down and more restaurants and retailers open, it will encourage people to visit all the shops, including hers.
Some longtime businesses like Sluggers, which has been just south of Wrigley on Clark Street for more than 30 years, have another advantage over the newcomers: They own their properties. That makes them less susceptible to rising rents.
Strauss, like Gamez, is optimistic about the effect new businesses in the area, especially the hotels, could have on his sales.
“If they can keep 200 people in the hotels on winter weekends, it will be phenomenal for the bars and restaurants,” he said.
But there is one complaint Strauss said he’s heard from customers as the sleek new buildings around the ballpark have taken shape: Prices are going up, and the vibe is getting more corporate.
Some of the new businesses seem like they’re “catering more to the going-out scene” than to neighborhood families, said Lorenzo, of Wrigleyville Sports.
But Andrea Carlson, 33, a new mom who lives in the area, said she likes that the events on the plaza near the park, which also include a farmers market and movie nights, give her things to do. Carlson said she’s stuck around after events on Gallagher Way for trips to Big Star or Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams a handful of times.
It’s not just the Ricketts’ developments and the Addison & Clark project that are changing the area. The neighborhood Taco Bell is scheduled to come down next month to make way for a three-story building that will include a rock climbing gym and shops, and a nearby building that once housed an auto repair shop is slated to be replaced with more retail.
If newcomers do succeed in turning the area into a steadier draw throughout the year, the community wants to ensure it doesn’t come at the expense of the neighborhood’s character, said Martino at the Lakeview East chamber.
The chamber has created a committee focused on helping Clark Street businesses bring more foot traffic to the area even when there’s no ballgame or concert, and the organization also is looking into ways to help the area’s growing number of hospitality businesses recruit enough employees.
Still, some feel the nostalgia for the Wrigleyville of yesteryear is somewhat misplaced.
“I think redevelopment is awesome. It makes the neighborhood a nicer place to be,” said Joe Spagnoli, owner of Yak-Zie’s restaurant and bar, though he’s less pleased with the rising property taxes.
Larry Busse, the recent visitor from Atlanta, grew up in Rockford and spent a lot of time at Wrigley before moving out of the area in 1987. He said he liked the changes he saw.
“The old-school charm was a gas station,” Busse said. “That’s not charm to me.”