Aurora development takes off as growing hub for Asian businesses
Thirty-five miles west of Chicago's Chinatown, an emerging Asian-themed lifestyle center in Aurora is on its way to becoming a suburban hub for Asian businesses.
Chinese American real estate developer Eddie Ni's vision to revive the 360,000-square-foot former Yorkshire Plaza on the city's east side is creating the nation's largest Asian-chic lifestyle center. It would provide a one-stop destination for shopping, food, business, service, leisure and entertainment -- a model that can be replicated in other urban markets, Ni said.
Pacifica Square shopping center, unofficially known as the "suburbs' Chinatown," lies west of Route 59 and north of East New York Street across from Fox Valley Mall. It features Asian-centric retail stores and restaurants serving a variety of cuisines, an Asian supermarket with a food court, a Buddhist meditation center, a church, and dozens of other businesses catering to visitors' beauty, pet care, health and fitness, educational and entertainment needs.
The center was more than 50% vacant when Ni and 20-plus other investors bought the property for $18 million in 2018. While some national chains -- Best Buy and Planet Fitness -- stayed, other anchors like Pier 1 Imports, Mattress Firm and Golfsmith sporting goods closed in recent years.
Last month, the center welcomed eight new Asian American-owned businesses -- A Tasty Hot Pot, Aquarius Gift Shop, Chill'Axe Throwing Sports Bar, Gemini Foot Massage, Jennifer's Hair Salon, Levee Karaoke, Pho Noodle Station and Value Liquidation Bin. That's in addition to 15 new businesses that have opened within the past year, including a dozen in February for Chinese New Year.
Several more businesses, including chains and Chicago Chinatown staples like Strings Ramen Shop and Veggie House, are set to open this summer.
"We brought in 30 new tenants," said Ni, a Naperville resident and CEO of the Windfall Group/Pacifica Square. "We are trying to build the largest concentration of Asian businesses in the country. We're (developing it) a little bit different from the traditional Chinatown."
Ethnic-themed shopping centers are popular in urban markets with large Asian populations, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, Houston, and Orlando.
According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, landlords are adapting to demographic shifts by tailoring their retail properties to appeal to consumers from China, India, South Korea and elsewhere in Asia.
Pacifica Square's primary audience is the burgeoning Asian population in Naperville and Aurora -- 19% and nearly 9% of those cities, respectively.
"Pacifica Square is creating a community-knit, mixed-use development that stands out along Route 59, the most profitable commercial corridor for both the city of Aurora and Naperville," said Jan Zheng of Naperville, president of the Chinese American Association at Greater Chicago.
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said Ni and the Windfall Group "re-energized" an underutilized shopping center.
"The second and third phases of the development will continue to make it the largest Asian-themed shopping center in the country," said Irvin, adding that the redevelopments of Pacifica Square and the Fox Valley Mall "have allowed us to re-imagine how retail and residential can blend into the overall economic development plan for the city of Aurora."
Park to Shop, the flagship store of a Chinese supermarket chain, anchors Pacifica Square on the west side. The roughly 50,000-square-foot grocery store, in a former Burlington Coat Factory outlet space, opened last July. It includes 12 eateries in a food court situated near the entrance.
The alluring smells of boiling crab, specialty teas, Hong Kong-style noodles, Korean fried chicken and other delicacies waft out to greet customers as they walk in.
Grocery aisles offer an assortment of exotic treats -- fermented sweet rice, preserved duck eggs, ginkgo nuts and durian fruit -- and a fresh seafood bar allows shoppers to pick out live crustaceans, mollusks and other types of seafood.
"This store is great. This is like the biggest Chinese market in Illinois," said Yunjing Huang of Park Forest, who drives about an hour each way to shop there three times a month.
Among the businesses in the square is Value Liquidation Bin -- a cross between a warehouse and a flea market -- where people can sift through bins containing a variety of products that have been returned by customers of major retailers. Items can be purchased for as low as $1 and up to $10, depending on the day.
It's a fun store to peruse, said Nada Khan, 16, of Plainfield.
"There's a lot of stuff you can do here," Khan said of the square.
Her family shops often at the Park to Shop market, and she and her friends patronize the eateries and stores a few times a month.
"There's a lot of people (who come) here my age (and) also college students," Khan said. "It's definitely different ... like the variety of stores. There's not a lot of Asian places around here. You don't have to be Asian to enjoy this place."
Ni and partners have invested more than $10 million into the first phase of improvements, including site work, redirecting traffic flow, facade renovations, and dividing buildings once occupied by large retailers into smaller business spaces.
They plan to invest another $15 million to $20 million in the second phase of development, expected to kick off next spring and be complete by 2023. It will involve building roughly 53,000 square feet of flexible, modular spaces to accommodate 30 or so mixed-use tenants. Retail will occupy the ground level and the second level will house professional offices.
The next phase will bring more dining and entertainment options with outdoor seating, a plaza for live events, such as the Chinese moon festival, and a pedestrian-friendly, landscaped environment. The new construction will be more modern, but the landscape will incorporate traditional Asian features, including solar-powered LED parking lot lanterns in the shape of a Chinese knot, symbolizing good fortune.
The development is expected to create more than 1,200 jobs for the state's second-largest city.
Chicago-based architect Cristal Zheng, formerly of Aurora, designed Pacifica Square to be a vibrant, multicultural shopping center, inclusive of different Asian ethnicities with more contemporary architecture to attract younger customers.
Zheng previously worked for an international company that builds malls and retail centers. She said open-air retail concepts are popular with health-conscious millennials, providing an atmosphere for interaction with people.
"We want to create a community for Asian people and also promote our Asian culture to the general public," Zheng said.