Chicago Sun-Times

How to get free rent for your new business

Apartment investor Cedar Street Cos. and its Flats Chicago brand of amenity-rich, entry-price rental units will pioneer a city program Wednesday aimed at filling vacant commercial spaces that pockmark the ground floors of many apartment buildings.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel will unveil the program, called Up the Block, to give commercial developers incentives to fill their vacant retail spaces with small, locally owned businesses.

The program will start by letting small businesses compete to set up shop in two vacant storefronts in Flats Chicago properties in the Uptown neighborhood at 1325 W. Wilson and 1020 W. Lawrence.


1020 W. Lawrence

The goal is to give residents more retail options, property owners fewer ground-floor vacancies, and small businesses a chance to leap the hurdles involved in setting up a storefront.

Benefits to the entrepreneurs include:

•   The city will cut red tape to ensure speedy permits and business licenses, provide priority access to microloans, and help with marketing efforts.

•  Students at Northwestern University’sKellogg School of Management will help the entrepreneurs with their business plans.

•   Flats will pay for the legal work to incorporate a small business; provide a rent-free first year to entrepreneurs who sign five-year leases; provide up to $50,000 in space improvements and support from the company’s design team; and partner the new company with resources such as the Heritage Bicycles General Store, a successful business in the neighborhood.

Small businesses may go to to “give us your sermon why your business will add value to this building, this community and the nearby buildings,” said Flats Chicago developer Jay Michael, who with business partner Alex Samoylovich have scooped up distressed properties and kept rents below market rate while making them dog-friendly, secure with keyless access, and outfitted with free Wi-Fi, fitness centers, in-unit washers and dryers and bathrooms with rainshowers and modern, drawer-filled vanities.

The application deadline is June 30, with the goal of opening the storefronts by the end of summer.

The #FlatsProject website says the winning storefront applicants will be “entrepreneurs who’ve already poured their souls into their big idea” and want to be part of a diverse neighborhood. The site also puts the value of the benefits at over $100,000.

“The #FlatsProject is an accelerator program for small businesses,” Michael said. “The idea is that a lot of small businesses operate online, out of their homes or through networks like Dose Market, but don’t have the wherewithal to open their own storefronts.”

Roxanne Nava, chief small business officer at the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department, said the mayor aims to expand the program citywide.

“We have meetings lined up with other developers,” Nava said. “This is a long-term commitment.”

The problem certainly is. In August 2008, at the start of the recession, the Sun-Times documented 14 businesses that had closed and two others moved in the South Loop neighborhood bounded by Cermak, Roosevelt, State and Indiana Avenue. Many of the ground-floor vacancies, once home to restaurants and pet- and human-clothing boutiques, remain empty with brown paper covering the windows.

Chicago Sun-Times | Sandra Guy