CREST HILL – Broken gravel, walking paths crudely shaped by mounds of dirt and a series of old, worn-down buildings line the Crest Hill side of Broadway Street, north of Theodore Street.
“It’s an eyesore,” several Crest Hill aldermen said at a city workshop meeting Feb. 23.
The Crest Hill City Council made it clear at that meeting that they had heard enough about how run-down Broadway Street was, how unsightly it was, and how it compared to the city of Joliet’s stretch of the road.
The solution: Along with cleaning up the viaduct area along Broadway, push businesses on the corridor – primarily auto shops – to clean up by clamping down on a previously unenforced zoning code.
But some auto shops said the city’s demands are hurting their businesses, and even might push them to close.
The Broadway Street economic corridor is full of properties that have been operating as auto body shops since the early 20th century.
The most recent revised zoning code, passed in 2000, zoned most Broadway properties as B-2, General Business District. That means only small-job auto servicing is allowed. But most of the auto repair shops have been performing heavy work and even selling cars since then.
Last summer, building inspector Eric Gall started enforcing the zoning code by talking with Broadway auto shops.
“This has gone under the radar for too long,” said Assistant City Manager Heather McGuire, who also is the city attorney. “Under the zoning, they can’t operate legally anymore. ... But the City Council ended up passing an ordinance granting them legal nonconforming status.”
That was in October, and stipulations of the ordinance included deadlines to clean up junk, garbage and debris – including inoperable or unregistered vehicles, tires and car parts or tools – by Feb. 1.
The ordinance allows two shops to continue selling cars, but limits them to a maximum of four cars a year, with a maximum two at a time. Newer auto sale businesses are allowed to sell more because they are zoned B-3.
Also, any building code violations should be corrected and all parking areas should be paved by Nov. 1, 2016.
On Monday, the council officially extended the Feb. 1 cleanup deadline to April 18 for three of five auto shops that still needed to comply with the ordinance.
“We’re doing this all throughout the city,” McGuire said. “We’re trying to draw new business to the area.”
Auto shop owners have expressed a desire to comply with the city’s zoning code. But some feel they’re being pushed out of business by the city.
“I don’t know how long I can stay open,” A1 Elite Auto Shop owner Dimitri Alexsoff said.
A1 Elite, at 1600 N. Broadway St., is one of the three shops still under the city’s microscope.
Alexsoff took over management of A1 Elite after his father, the longtime shop owner, died in December. Alexsoff said the city told him he needed to move the dozens of cars parked on his unpaved lot.
A street-side part of A1 Elite’s lot was paved last year. Since then, Alexsoff said, he has been doing his best to remove the cars from the rest of his property.
“It costs time, and it costs money,” Alexsoff said, claiming that he was taking losses by getting rid of cars he could have fixed up for resale. “At the same time, my mother, brother, everyone has been grieving. It’s been really tough.”
George Lattas, a Chicago-based attorney for Alexsoff, said he was surprised by the irate tone the City Council took with the auto shops Feb. 23.
“It’s important to recognize the city is trying to do good by its people,” Lattas said. “Their intentions are good. But I think they’re completely failing to understand these are real businesses, with real employees and real owners.”
J&H Auto Service owner Juan Hernandez said the code enforcement has heavily diminished his business. J&H, at 1714 N. Broadway St., is one of the three auto shops listed under the ordinance.
“I had to clean all cars in the back,” Hernandez said, adding that he now works only on local dealers’ cars. “But they want me to hire contractors to pave the back.”
Hernandez estimated the cost of the paving could be $35,000. He plans to complete it in phases before the Nov. 1 deadline.
McGuire acknowledged that the businesses have progressed in cleaning up their properties. But A1 Elite, J&H and the third shop, Steve’s Auto Repair at 1812 N. Broadway St., still have a long way to go.
“I think we approached this in the most equitable manner as we could,” McGuire said. “We’ve never attempted to treat them unfairly. If there are other property owners in a similar situation, we’ll approach them the same way.”