Interchange work in Elgin may doom some McLean Boulevard businesses
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org March 28, 2013 8:12PM
Eminent domain is the term that is being used to take a third of the property Tung Tran's Shell gas station sits on at McLean Boulevard and Lillian Street in Elgin. Due to the Route 20 interchange plans, the station will be unable to have fuel because the underground fuel tanks are in the path of the widening of McLean Boulevard. March 28, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 1, 2013 2:09PM
ELGIN — Thirty-four years ago, 10-year-old Tung Tran fled from Vietnam into the open sea with 102 other refugees in a small boat intended only for river use. Today, living the American Dream, he works 84 hours a week running his own gas station and convenience store on Elgin’s west side.
But sometime in the next few months he will lose that and all the money and sweat he has put into it over the past nine years — not because the business is failing but because the state of Illinois wants a third of its property and, he says, state officials refuse to admit the station can’t go on without that.
“If you had asked me three years ago if this could happen in America, I would have said, ‘No way!’” Tran said as he gazed at the dense traffic outside his Shell station at the corner of Lillian Street and McLean Boulevard. “But that was before I heard the words ‘eminent domain.’”
Heading into its third year of construction, with at least one more year to come, the $45 million Illinois Department of Transportation project to create the area’s first “single-point urban interchange” at Route 20 and McLean Boulevard was expected to reach a turning point Friday: Westbound traffic will be diverted onto the temporarily widened south half of the overpass while the north half is torn out and replaced.
The payoff, when the ambitious project is finished sometime in late 2014 or early 2015, is projected to be a more efficiently running interchange. Rush-hour queues of drivers trying to move off Route 20 onto McLean won’t back up into the limited access highway’s traffic lanes, and drivers going by on McLean won’t have to wait through quite so many permutations of the red light/green light cycle.
Those drivers also will have more left-turn lanes to ease the time to turn onto or off Lillian Street, the bottle-necked main route from that area into Elgin’s southwest side.
But all the new turn lanes and ramps needed to make this possible come with a price. Already, at the end of last construction season, drivers used to enjoying a direct connection to McLean from Weld Road have had to add blocks to their journey by being forced into a more roundabout route via Shepard Drive and Fleetwood Drive.
And as McLean begins to expand, many of the businesses along it are being forced to either go out of business or reinvent themselves in some way that doesn’t require as much land.
Years in planning
City Engineer Joe Evers said IDOT planners began talking about McLean and Route 20 some 10 years ago. The twin bridges carrying 20 across McLean were wearing out. And as the state people looked at accident and traffic statistics, they began to think the diamond-shaped arrangement of entrances and exits splicing together 20, McLean and Weld wasn’t working.
“They saw that in heavy traffic, vehicles trying to exit onto McLean were backing up the ramps into the traffic lanes on 20, and we were getting rear-end collisions,” Evers said. And down on McLean itself, rush-hour drivers were taking five minutes or more to work their way through the interchange with its complicated multiple stages of green lights for various entrance ramps, exit ramps and left turners. That backup, in turn, sometimes was holding up cars coming down Lillian Street.
So the IDOT people came up with a creative solution:
When it came time to replace those bridges, make the exit ramps and entrance ramps in that area much longer, so that even if cars did back up, they wouldn’t protrude into Route 20 traffic.
Replace the Weld-McLean connection with the Shepard Drive-Fleetwood Drive link that went into operation last fall.
Replace the whole interchange with an exotic system of spiral-shaped exits and entrances focused at a single point under the new bridges that wouldn’t require as many different stoplight cycles.
Called a “single-point urban interchange,” the new kind of connection is found in Northern Illinois only where U.S. 41 and Illinois 132 cross near Gurnee. An animated demonstration of how another one works, near Kansas City, can be found online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwpoPQ1SPJU.
The main impact on businesses comes from plans to widen McLean Boulevard and Lillian Street. Twin left-turn lanes will be installed on both Lillian Street and southbound McLean at their intersection. A right-turn lane will be added on northbound McLean at Lillian.
Much of McLean and Lillian will get concrete median strips to keep people from turning left across oncoming lanes. And the outside lanes on McLean will add a bike lane.
To accommodate all that widening, IDOT needed to take over some of the adjoining businesses’ property, varying from a few feet in some locations to drastic cuts in others. Two years ago IDOT lawyers began the process of “eminent domain” suits to buy that land.
That’s when Tran learned that the state wanted a third of his lot, including much of his gas-pump area and the entire area where the underground gas tanks are buried.
“This will put us out of business as a gas station,” he said. “The state already has taken ownership of the land and they could start taking out my tanks at any time. We haven’t been told when that will start.”
Tran said the state paid him for the lost third, but only about half as much as he paid for the former Hansen’s Shell Service station nine years ago. State officials argue that even though it can’t be a gas station anymore, Tran will still have the building and a few parking spaces, so he can go on operating the business as a convenience store. But Tran says that wouldn’t work.
“Gas is what brings the customers in here to buy the other items,” he says. “These new median strips will keep cars from turning left into our station from either Lillian or McLean. And we will be left with only one access for semis to deliver our merchandise; they would have to back up into Lillian Street to get back out of here.”
So when the gas pumps get shut off, he says, his business will have to close. A court ruled that the state’s low offer was fair, but his lawyer is appealing.
“It looks like I’ll have to get a job somewhere. We will have lost our whole savings and have no money to start another business now,” Tran says.
“But my family started with nothing before and we’ll just have to start there again,” he says.
Across the street, the 80-year-old JB’s Pub — formerly known as the Boulevard Tap — faces a similar squeeze. The state has taken ownership of more than half the tavern’s parking lot. But Jim Bollman, who has owned the establishment for 32 years, says the state argues that he can go on operating without that parking and therefore the state only had to pay him a fraction of what the entire business would be worth.
“This basically will put us out of business,” he says.
Some other landowners have taken the money offered by IDOT and folded their tents.
Jeff Corn, owner of the Dunkin’ Donuts shop at McLean and Main Lane, sold to the state and the state tore down that building last year.
Owners of the strip mall just south of the Shell station, which formerly included a pet shop and Elgin One Hour Cleaners and a Radio Shack store, sold to the state and the mall has been torn down, too.
Also doomed is the strip mall at the edge of the Town & Country Shopping Center on the opposite side of McLean Boulevard. The strip now holds Liberty Income Tax, All Credit Lenders and TCS Wireless.
TCS manager Ben Acuna said the phone store and tax service have arranged to move to a different location in the shopping center.
Some not hurt
But the impact of the McLean widening varies considerably from business to business.
A Cricket Wireless store also had occupied that doomed west-side strip mall but moved across the street last November to a strip mall next to the one that has already been torn down. Manager Sam Shah said that “the state will take part of our parking here, too. But we have room for more parking in back.”
“I’m only going to lose about 12 feet of grass from our front yard. All our parking is already in the back,” said Brad Olson, whose flagship Brad Olson Hair Styling and Hair Replacement businesses have been next to Route 20 since 1976. Gilbert Lemus, whose family owns Lemus Auto Repair in a former gas station at McLean and Main Lane, said the state will take about half its front parking space and close both entrances from McLean.
But he said the garage can continue to operate using the remaining parking space and an entrance from Main Lane.