Forest Park, Illinois is an inner-ring suburb of Chicago, located about 10 miles directly west of downtown. Most of the built environment in Forest Park is a result of the post-World War II building boom, and most of the housing stock is between 40-60 years old. Forest Park is hemmed in by other inner-ring suburbs of similar age. Oak Park, Maywood, River Forest, and Riverside are all neighbors of Forest Park, and other large suburbs like Berwyn and Cicero are nearby. Because of this, Forest Park is done expanding – at least outwardly.
The demographics in these post-war inner-ring western suburbs vary wildly. Oak Park is known for its tony neighborhoods of stately mansions and its upmarket downtown; Maywood is almost 90 percent African-American; Berwyn and Cicero have transitioned from Italian to Mexican; Riverside is a quiet, suburban, mostly white enclave of upper middle class homes situated along curvy, tree lined streets. Forest Park is more of a melting pot in terms of demographics, and more diverse than many of the other suburbs; in addition, it has a centralized location along the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290), giving it direct access to downtown Chicago as well as points west.
The retail scene in Forest Park itself, however, is kind of lacking. Downtown Oak Park has a myriad of options, including mall store chains like The Gap, but the nearest mall and a large concentration of box store options is located just a few blocks south of the city along Cermak Road and Harlem Avenue in the village of North Riverside. This corridor also contains a large, regional two-level mall, North Riverside Park Mall, which opened in 1976 and features Carson Pirie Scott, JCPenney, and Sears. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a situation emerged giving Forest Park a chance to build a significant retail venture, the Forest Park Mall.
Forest Park Mall was a 400,000 square-foot enclosed mall located along Roosevelt Road just west of Harlem Avenue, and about a quarter of a mile south of I-290. Helmed by the same developer who created Ford City Mall on Chicago’s southwest side, Forest Park Mall – just like Ford City - was also a redevelopment project that converted an old factory into a shopping center - albeit on a smaller scale.
The site that would become the mall originally operated as a Naval torpedo plant during World War II. After the war, the site was used as a Naval training academy, and subsequently utilized by the U.S. Postal Service for a time after that. Then, in the late 1970s, the then-abandoned building was purchased by the city of Forest Park.
Not knowing what to do with the abandoned eyesore, which had been off the city’s tax rolls due to the fact that it was owned by the federal government for decades, several options emerged for the site, including retail and manufacturing operations. It was quickly determined the best use for the site would be retail, as there was little interest from companies wishing to relocate here, and the revenue generated from retail would put more money into the city’s coffers; Forest Park’s tax base was already extremely restricted because there weren’t many businesses in the city, and much of the city’s land is cemeteries. Win, win.
The city, who owned the site, then teamed up with the same developer who converted the Ford factory on Chicago’s southwest side into a successful regional mall in 1965. Because of the space constraints of the building and the 1976 opening of North Riverside Park Mall, a large, regional mall just one mile to the south, it was determined that the retail development in Forest Park would be smaller, at least to begin with.
Forest Park Mall opened in 1983, anchored by a Venture discount store on the west end and a Courtesy Home Center home improvement store on the east end, complemented by an enclosed hallway of stores connecting the anchors, containing room for 70 stores. Some early stores in the mall were Deb Shops, Perry’s Drugs, Tom Olesker’s Menswear, and Gift Horse. In addition, a giant Child World children’s store/castle was built on the northwest corner of the mall’s lot. The decor of the mall featured period-typical beige walls with wood paneling and multiple skylights throughout the interior walkway, providing ample natural light. A small lower level also existed, but was mostly used for offices and restrooms rather than retail use.
Forest Park Mall received its only expansion when a small food court was built near the Venture end of the mall, with its own dedicated entrance to the south of the mall. The food court, much like the rest of the mall, was never fully tenanted.
However, the mall never filled to capacity, so management brought in temporary stores and filled in smaller store spaces with larger stores. Holidays brought Spencer’s Gifts and temporary store FIM, which sold Christmas merchandise during the winter, and TJMaxx was also brought on board. Old Country Buffet also opened near the mall entrance closest to Venture in a former shoe store.
Unfortunately, throughout the 1990s Forest Park Mall encountered many setbacks. First, Venture decided to remodel their store, and in doing so, shut their entrance to the mall. Whoops. Courtesy Home Center closed their eastern anchor store a couple years later, and left with only TJMaxx as an anchor the stores began to leave in droves. TJMaxx eventually closed also, leaving the mall somewhat anchorless, and the Forest Park library took up temporary residence in the mall’s lower level while a new facility was being built. Meanwhile, the large Child World castle closed in the early part of the decade and was demolished for a Portillo’s Hotdogs location.
In 1998, anchor Venture went under as the whole chain went out of business, leaving another ominous hole in Forest Park Mall’s roster. It was, however, miraculously filled rather swiftly with a K-Mart store which still operates as of 2009.
About the same time Venture discount store left Forest Park Mall, a new and unique venture moved into the former Courtesy Home Center on the other end of the mall – a church. The Living Word Christian Center, Pastored by Bill Winston, opened up shop in the former home improvement anchor in 1998, and has since expanded throughout the entire mall. Living Word now owns the entire mall and its outlots, including Portillos, and has expanded its church services into the mall. According to Pastor Winston, the vision for the mall is a “one stop shop for the spirit, soul, and body.” There’s also a business school in the mall, and a handful of other stores and services, including a clothier aimed at young black men. At one point, a bank was even planned for the site.
Today, a myriad of retail exists along with the church, including a large grocery store named Ultra Foods which has set up shop inside the former Courtesy Home anchor.
The transformation of this property, from Naval weapons facility to retail mall back to tax-exempt status as a church is quite the wild ride, and we’re glad to be able to properly document the journey. The pictures featured here were taken in June 2000, and a more recent set exists here. As always, feel free to leave some comments concerning the mall and its unique history.