Could old Wheaton clothing store turn into a coworking space? Some question if it's a good fit
High-speed internet, cold brew coffee on tap, filtered water stations, private meeting rooms and happy hour events.
Andrew Nast and Adam Clabaugh have opened coworking spaces in suburban downtowns with those perks of a corporate office, minus the commute.
Their company, Brick & Mortar, aims to build a remote work culture for white-collar professionals who want to escape from Zoom fatigue and the monotony of the past two years.
Nast sees the business, which hopes to open a new location in downtown Wheaton, becoming the "Airbnb of coworking." The idea is for employees to book day passes and hop around coworking sites. Once they've logged off for the night, they could try out a nearby restaurant or meet up with friends.
"Folks love the flexibility of work from home, or really work from anywhere," said Nast, Brick & Mortar's managing partner. "We're just trying to set up that infrastructure that meets them at that need."
But the company's expansion plan, putting shared offices in the retail core of suburban downtowns, faces zoning hurdles.
In Wheaton, some city officials and residents have embraced the concept but not the proposed location of a Brick & Mortar space.
The company wants to turn a prime piece of real estate -- occupied for decades by a men's clothing store -- into a ground-floor coworking center at Main and Front streets. The planning and zoning board recommended the city council approve the project, but it wasn't unanimous.
"Great idea, wrong location," board member Robert Gudmundson said.
The company met a similar reaction in Libertyville. Village trustees last month rejected a Brick & Mortar request to remake a vacant downtown building into what would have been its fifth suburban location.
On Monday night, Wheaton City Council members will weigh in on whether a coworking space complements or contrasts with the vision for downtown. Nast said flexible office space would dovetail with the dining and shopping scene.
"It really adds value to everything else that's going on in the community, retail, restaurants, etc., because we're bringing folks into the downtowns during daytime hours and then into the late afternoons, early evenings," he said.
Brick & Mortar would team up with restaurants to host happy hour events and act as a "trusted local tour guide" for visiting remote workers.
"We love learning and understanding the restaurant, bar, retail landscape and being able to offer recommendations to our members, and ensure that they have an amazing time in the cities as planned," Nast said.
City officials have acknowledged that there are vacant commercial spaces downtown due to the pandemic and other factors. In a memo to the zoning board, city planners questioned if the project "would make the existing situation worse in the long term by allowing a non-retail use on the main floor that may not substantially benefit the existing retail business in downtown."
Brick & Mortar intends to buy the downtown building from the family of Robert Sandberg. His namesake men's clothing and sports memorabilia store filled the building's first floor for decades until he died from injuries he suffered in a July 2020 car crash.
Since then, the two-story corner building has been vacant in a downtown area meant to "accommodate pedestrian-oriented retail businesses and other uses," Wheaton's zoning rules say. Brick & Mortar is seeking a special-use permit to allow a coworking space to occupy the main floor.
"We're going to invest pretty significantly into this to make a really, really eye-catching building," said Clabaugh, Nast's business partner.
Sandberg opened his first clothing store in Wheaton in 1958 and later owned several properties downtown. Over the years, the city had tried to purchase or condemn Sandberg's buildings because they had been either vacant or subject to various code violations.
The Main Street building dates to 1916. Brick & Mortar would remove the cedar shaker canopy and replace all the windows while modernizing the exterior. Clabaugh envisions a marquee steel awning that ties in with "a lot of the other buildings in the area."
The project would "end up completely gutting" the interior to pave the way for lounge-style seating, electronic sit-and-stand desks, communal tables and a meeting room.
"Imagine one of the nicest hotel lobbies you've walked into in the past. That's maybe a good kind of example of what we'll try to accomplish inside," Clabaugh said.
The company has three pricing plans for private and dedicated spaces, open seating and hourly reservations. A day pass to its downtown Park Ridge location costs $25, while unlimited memberships are $250.
Employers are giving stipends for employees to work remotely, Nast said, and company owners are creating a base for themselves out of Brick & Mortar.
It's a more professional and productive setting than trying to get work done out of a coffee shop or a home office with your dog barking in the background, Clabaugh said.
"We believe that demand is going to continue to grow and grow and grow as people are leaving larger cities, looking to move into these hip suburban downtowns," he said.
Since opening its first location in Park Ridge, the business has expanded to Deerfield and LaGrange. A Glen Ellyn coworking space is under construction.