On a recent tour of the Plaza mall at 95th Street and Western Ave., longtime general manager Bruce Provo talks and laughs with an ease that belies the mall's recent troubles, which include multiple tenant bankruptcies, a fire just before Christmas in 2007, missed loan payments, foreclosure and premature reports of the Plaza's sale and closure.
Provo, whose Provo Group Inc. was the general partner for a group of investors who together owned the Plaza prior to foreclosure in 2011, has been involved with the mall for the past 33 years, dating back to his days working for the original developer, Arthur Rubloff. That history, as much as anything, drives Provo to lobby on behalf of the handful of tenants trying to make it at the Plaza. This residual pride of ownership keeps him speaking out long after he's given up trying to save the Plaza himself.
WHAT KILLED THE PLAZA?
Two things about Bruce Provo became evident shortly after meeting him last week. First, he is absolutely convinced that property taxes in Evergreen Park – particularly taxes paid to Elementary School District 124 and Community High School District 231 – have helped kill the mall by a) siphoning off money that could have been spent on upkeep and improvements and b) stripping any meaningful return on the owners' investment out of the property. In one recent Plaza newsletter, Provo referred to "the avarice of the taxing authorities."
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The other thing one notices almost immediately when talking with Provo that he is as close to done with the Plaza as someone who is still responsible for its day-to-day operations can be. He talks candidly about the multiple tenant bankruptcies, about tenants that almost were and why they were not, about the racial divisions among mall patrons and about how shortsighted some of the redevelopment plans put forth by GMX Real Estate Group and the Janko Group were. GMX and Janko recently pulled the plug on plans to take the mall out of foreclosure, putting its future in limbo again.
Walking through the mall, Provo greets and chats with tenants and the odd shopper here and there. Entire wings of the Plaza appear to be abandoned. Most of the storefronts are empty. Of the handful of businesses that remain, some are nearly impossible to find unless you know they're there, like the nail salon and insurance agency downstairs underneath what was the Circuit City. Circuit City filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
On the tour, Provo jokes with a security guard about how security cameras can read license plate numbers in the parking lot. A few minutes later he spots an Evergreen Park police car cruising the lot and says the patrols – searching for expired tags or writing tickets for no village stickers – drive away business and are just another revenue tool for the village.
On one hand Provo seems genuinely concerned for the future of the small businesses in the Plaza. He introduces two reporters on his tour to some of them, encouraging the owners to tell their stories. On the flip side, he complains about how some tenants in the north part of the mall won't spend money to run their own air conditioning units, preferring instead to pull cool air from the mall common areas. "So we turned off the air down here."
Provo says he resigned himself to not being part of the Plaza's future some time ago. It was a gradual process that took a toll on him mentally and physically. The tenant bankruptcies, the fire, the potential anchor tenants that never materialized, the first time he realized he wouldn't be able to make the mortgage payment on the mall, the foreclosure and, finally, being asked by the receiver to act as the general manager until someone bought the note. "I know I have no say in this," Provo says. "I'm done. I'm out."
But Provo, it turns out, has some well thought-out ideas for how the Plaza could be redeveloped into a money-maker for its owners and the village. He has for years advocated that the Plaza be turned from an indoor mall into an open air shopping center. Comments from him to that effect aren't hard to find in stories dating back to 2008 in which Provo calls the de-malling of the Plaza "inevitable."
In his most recent Plaza newsletter, Provo laid out an eight-point redevelopment plan that would turn the 750,000-square-foot enclosed mall into a 220,000-square-foot open-air strip center at the north end of the property, a separate movie theater, a separate banquet facility and a separate 240,000-square-foot Carson Pirie Scott store. Carson's filed for bankruptcy in 1991.
Provo said he would like to see the mall's new owners, whoever it turns out to be, give the structure Carson's is in now to the retailer in exchange for Carson's assuming the property taxes on the building.
Provo suggests demolishing the old Montgomery Ward's building (one of the retailers that declared bankruptcy) and give the land underneath it to AMC Theaters to build a multiplex. Nearby Provo recommends demolishing the part of the mall between Carson's and the current center court. The center court would then have glass walls added to its west and south facades. The interior could become a banquet facility that would replace the old Martinique, which was demolished to make way for the Walmart across 95th Street from the Plaza.
Provo said the note on the Plaza – about $20 million – should be written down by 40 percent to $12 million and a two-year moratorium should be placed on the accrual of interest. He said the village should be granted a 25-percent interest in the remaining mall assets in exchange for establishing a more predictable and fair tax than the current property tax scheme and refinancing a bond issue.
He suggested a flat 20 percent of rental revenues. Which, of course, wouldn't be a property tax, and Cook County might take issue with that plan. He said the village should also refinance the loan the village made to the Plaza – financed by a bond sale – for work on the west side of the property and provide additional funding to demolish the part of the mall between Carson's and the center court, the old Ward's building and the stores immediately adjacent to the north mall parking lot. The latter would re-open the original mall to natural light and the parking lot.
Provo is convinced his plan can work, but he sounds equally convinced it will never happen. "I'm confident that this roadmap will be 'pooh-poohed' by the Village as just 'talk' and not 'action,'" Provo wrote. "I hope the community can wind up with something at 95th and Western with the character of a Town Center."
And he couldn't resist one more shot at the schools. "I also hope the community stops the schools from killing small business with their self-proclaimed 'right' to exorbitant taxes. Good luck."
The decline of the Plaza has been long and difficult. Economics have played a huge part, as have changing demographics and tastes in retail. Provo believes taxes have, as well. We will explore each of these in future pieces, because understanding what happened to the Plaza is key to planning for its future. In the meantime think what you will about Provo and his stewardship of the Plaza, but he is unquestionably uniquely positioned to comment on both the Plaza's past and its future, even though at this point, he can't control either.
Read the Plaza timeline: