McLean reconstruction woes hit Elgin merchants this summer, drivers in 2014
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org August 20, 2013 7:20PM
DAVE GATHMAN - SUN-TIMES MEDIA Entrance and exit ramps are being rearranged to turn the Route 20/McLean Boulevard area into what planners call a "single-point urban interchange."
Updated: September 22, 2013 6:08AM
ELGIN — For three summers, west-side Elgin drivers have been frustrated by the work to totally rearrange the interchange at Route 20 and McLean Boulevard. But beginning next spring, they are likely to become REALLY frustrated as workers begin to tear apart McLean and Lillian Street themselves.
And meanwhile, preparation for this second stage has devastated businesses along McLean.
In the past year, the Dunkin’ Donuts shop, a dry cleaners and a pet store have closed, been acquired by the state and been torn down. Four other businesses in a strip mall have either moved or closed.
At the southeast corner of McLean and Lillian, the Shell service station has closed, leaving its Vietnamese-American owner in the unemployment line with his life savings gone. And at the intersection’s northeast corner, the 80-year-old JB’s Pub sits on a knife’s edge, with its owner fearing he also will have to close down sometime next year.
The $45 million Illinois Department of Transportation project is:
Totally replacing the crumbling 50-year-old bridge that carries Route 20 over McLean.
Rearranging the entrance and exit ramps to create a new system of connections called a “single-point urban interchange” (the first in Kane County) that is supposed to keep rush-hour queues of drivers from backing up onto Route 20 and to reduce the time drivers have to wait for red lights down below.
Adding more left-turn lanes to ease the time to turn onto or off McLean from Lillian Street, the bottle-necked main connection from that whole area into Elgin’s southwest side.
But all the new turn lanes and curving exit and entrance ramps needed to make this possible come with a price. Already, at the end of last construction season, drivers who enjoyed a direct connection to McLean from Weld Road have had to add blocks to their journey by taking a new, more roundabout route from Weld to McLean via Shepard Drive and Fleetwood Drive.
And as McLean Boulevard is widened — a process that will begin in earnest next spring — businesses alongside are being forced to either go out of business or reinvent themselves in some way that doesn’t require as much land.
That’s what killed the Shell station, pet store, cleaners, Dunkin’ Donuts and strip mall. And that’s what has hung what could be a death sentence over JB’s Pub, too, according to owner Jim Bollman.
When Tung Tran left Vietnam by boat 34 years ago at the age of 10, his family dreamed of someday owning their own businesses in far-off America. After earning a degree in hotel and restaurant management, and working for years in restaurants and nursing homes, Tran achieved that dream nine years ago when he bought the former Hansen’s Shell service station and convenience store at McLean and Lillian. He has worked there 12 hours a day, seven days a week ever since.
But on June 16, he locked the station’s doors for the last time and hung a big sign on the front window reading “Thank You” to his customers.
The state already officially had taken over a third of the station’s land, including all the space used by his gas pumps and the space needed for delivery trucks to enter. But he now realizes he didn’t have to close up quite that soon.
“The state people wouldn’t say specifically when they were going to start construction at McLean and Lillian, but they told me they hoped to start in July,” Tran said Friday from his home in Berwyn. “I asked so many times when they would start, and they didn’t even seem to know. But I couldn’t risk ordering a lot of new inventory and then having all my customers cut off from access on July 1. So I closed on June 16.”
Twin left-turn lanes will be installed on Lillian for westbound motorists wanting to turn southbound onto McLean, and on McLean for southbound cars wanting to turn eastbound onto Lillian. A right-turn lane will be added on northbound McLean for cars heading eastbound onto Lillian.
Much of McLean and Lillian also will get 2-foot-wide concrete median strips to keep drivers from turning left across oncoming lanes. And the outside lanes on McLean will be made 14 feet wide to accommodate a bike lane.
To accommodate all that widening, IDOT needed to take over some of the adjoining businesses’s 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” lawsuits, in which a governmental body says that it needs to buy chunks of land for some greater public purpose.
Questions submitted by Sun-Times Media through IDOT’s public relations office finally obtained a time schedule that’s somewhat more specific. Doug Paulus, an engineer with the Elgin firm Hampton, Lenzini & Renwick who is coordinating the project for IDOT, said in a written statement Friday that “preparatory work on McLean Boulevard and Lillian Street should begin this fall with permanent reconstruction in the spring of 2014.”
“During the reconstruction of McLean Boulevard, two lanes will be maintained in each direction with left-turn lanes at the major intersections,” Paulus wrote. “Daily lane closures will occur as necessary (but) the total impact on traffic should be minimal.
“The projected completion date for the McLean Boulevard work is the fall of 2014.”
However, City Engineer Joe Evers believes that might be sugar-coating the impact on drivers next year.
“This work on McLean is going to be very disruptive,” Evers said. “They’re going to take out the entire pavement” as well as adding the new lanes and median strips in what used to be business parking lots.
Worse, there are so few north-south road connections in that part of Elgin that drivers will find few good alternative routes.
One new business
In the middle of all this business destruction, one big new business actually has been built on a vacant lot in the area. A new gas station/convenience store was expected to open just south of the overpass, at McLean and Fleetwood Drive, on Tuesday.
Ironically, it is a Shell brand gas station just like the one Tran had to close in June two blocks to the north. But Tung Tran will have nothing to do with this one.
Paul Webb, market manager of the Circle K convenience store chain, said the new station at Fleetwood will be owned and operated by Circle K, a nationwide corporation that has 100 such locations in the Chicago area alone, including all the former Jewel gas stations and the Shell station adjoining the Target store on Randall Road.
“We bought this property a couple years ago” and it would have opened even if Tran had not been forced out of business, Webb said.
The Circle K executive said he can empathize with the business owners being forced out by the state’s road work.
“Circle K is dealing with a similar situation in Crystal Lake, at Route 31 and Route 176,” Webb said. “We bought that station and expanded it, and then we found out three months later that the state needed our property land to widen the highway.”
Tran, meanwhile, remains cheerful as he forcibly transitions from small-business owner to somebody else’s employee.
“I bought the place for $1.5 million nine years ago,” Tran said. “When we settled with the state, they paid me just $1 million. They will pay only for the property itself. They won’t take into any consideration the value of the business there.
“I never thought this kind of thing could happen in America,” Tran said. “But it’s time to move on, and I’m looking for a job that can use my years of experience in management. I’d like to get into a new business someday, but I have lost all my capital. I don’t know how long it will take to rebuild what I had saved up over 20 years before I bought the Shell station.”
Waiting for the ax
At the 80-year-old JB’s Pub across the street, the man who has owned it for 32 years, Jim Bollman, fears that he’ll be in the same situation as Tran soon. And the veteran tavernkeeper expresses similar anger about the state’s means of compensating landowners and IDOT’s vagueness about when the construction actually will start.
“IDOT has done everything to force (the McLean business owners) to give up and take what they offered,” Bollman said. “We tried to hold out, but they’re just beating us into the ground.”
Bollman said he continues to fight IDOT in court to get what he thinks JB’s is worth, and he has no definite date when the pub will have to close, if it does.
“They won’t say when they’re going to start work here,” Bollman said. But when they do, the “right of way” lines painted onto the JB’s parking lot show where two-thirds of its parking area will be turned into new pieces of McLean Boulevard and Lillian Street.
JB’s streetside sign, on land taken over by the state, already has been taken away,
“(The state’s lawyers) say this is still a viable business,” Bollman said. “But what if I can only park 40 cars here and I need 120 cars worth of customers to pay my bills?
“They say I can tear the place down and this corner would still make a good spot for a Starbuck’s or something like that. But we’re not a Starbuck’s. We’re a neighborhood tavern. I guess that’s all that will be left in Elgin now — chain stores and Starbuck’s and gas stations owned by nationwide chains.”
Next construction season, besides beginning the McLean and Lillian work in earnest, IDOT’s contractors will replace the other (south) side of the Route 20 bridge, put in new traffic signals and finish laying out the new “single-point urban interchange.” If all goes well, by New Year’s 2015, traffic will move faster and more smoothly through this chronic bottleneck.
Paulus estimates that the north half of the bridge will be finished early this coming winter, the south half of the bridge will be finished in summer 2014, and the entire project will wrap up by the end of 2014.
“Yes, the future is going to be brighter,” Bollman said. “But we’re not going to be part of it.”