Hawthorn mall improvements OK'd in Vernon Hills

Details still need to be worked out, but after years of promises a major upgrade of the Westfield Hawthorn mall in Vernon Hills appears to be on track.

With the pending commitment of AMC Theatres as a main draw with a new 12-screen facility and the Dave & Buster's restaurant/arcade chain already on board, Westfield is set to embark on a $40 million to $50 million renovation and expansion centered on re-branding the mall as a destination for entertainment.

“We're committed to move forward. We look at it as a game changer for the property,” said John Genovese, senior vice president of development for Westfield.

The village board gave its informal go ahead Tuesday to a series of requests involving the proposed makeover at the 1.3 million-square-foot mall.

Talk of changes at the `70s-era shopping center have surfaced periodically, but previous plans by Westfield didn't pan out. Elected officials, who have become guarded in their expectations, hope this is the real deal.

“This is our bread and butter,” Trustee Cindy Hebda, who has been on the board for all the incarnations of various plans, said before her vote to proceed.

“What you're doing is good. We've got to make this viable. We have to do something,” she told Genovese and other company representatives.

Renovations will involve design changes at the three mall entrances and the addition of a new entry between Sears and JCPenney to house restaurants beneath the theater. Village staff has described that part of the plan as bringing “an excitement to the property which has been lacking for many years.”

The work would not include the main mall anchors — Sears, Macy's, Carson's and JCPenney — which own their properties.

The centerpiece is the $6 million AMC theater. The fully digital 1,200-seat venue would have reclining seats and feature a MacGuffins bar, where patrons could buy a drink to take to their seats. The concept also envisions a “marketplace” providing a variety of foods besides the traditional popcorn and candy.

“The guest expects more and we have to do this to remain relevant,” said George Patterson, senior vice-president of food and beverage at AMC.

A lease agreement with Westfield is said to be in the final stages but has not been signed. Whether Show Place 8 operated by AMC in Vernon Hills would remain open if a new theater is built has not been determined.

The village board agreed — subject to official preliminary and final approvals — to several measures to allow the expansion and remodeling to proceed. Those included variations for building heights and setbacks, parking and the number and size of signs, as well as permits to allow a movie theater and a restaurant/arcade that serve alcohol, and as many as 200 electronic games.

The board varied from staff recommendations by agreeing to allow two tall signs with LED screens to be located near mall entrances off Route 60 and Milwaukee Avenue.

Westfield had asked they be 48 feet tall but agreed not to exceed 40 feet, which is 15 feet taller than any other shopping area sign in Vernon Hills.

Westfield also agreed to drop its request to allow potentially lucrative “off premise” advertising on the signs. On-site advertising, meaning those businesses in the mall, will be allowed on the signs. But to what extent that will include individual products needs to be clearly defined, trustees said.

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