Plans to expand and improve Westfield Hawthorn Mall moved a step forward Tuesday when Vernon Hills officials expressed preliminary support of a new movie theater and exterior signage on the mall’s campus.
Village trustees heard a presentation from AMC Theater officials who said a modern theater between Sears and JC Penney, complete with the latest amenities, would help bring new life to Hawthorn.
Redevelopment plans call for a theater that would offer luxury recliner seating; a menu that would include such fare as pizza, chicken tenders, hot dogs, fries and a bar.
“We have to do this to remain relevant,” AMC executive George Patterson told village officials. “The bottom line is, we’re trying to change the experience.”
A full-service bar inside the theater would allow patrons to have a beverage in that area or during a movie. The bar, called MacGuffins, is already part of 40 AMC venues, Patterson said.
Patterson reviewed a series of safeguards that would be implemented, such as carding all bar patrons, training its staff, limiting theater-goers to one drink and using “mystery shoppers” to ensure minors would not be sold alcohol.
Trustee Barbara Williams asked what would prevent legal bar patrons from giving alcoholic beverages to underage guests inside the theater. “I’m very concerned about that,” she said.
“Our people are trained to look for that,” Patterson replied.
And, added Vernon Hills Police Chief Mark Fleischhauer, “To put it in their vernacular, we have a great ‘mystery shopper’ program, too.”
Large LED signs
In a related discussion, trustees reviewed a Westfield Hawthorn proposal to erect 48-foot pylon signs featuring LED screens near the entrances on Route 60 and Milwaukee Avenue.
The request raised the eyebrows of some officials, who noted that Vernon Hills’ tallest existing signs are the 25-foot one at the Hawthorn Fashion Mall and the 24-foot one at Rivertree Court.
“The sheer size of the property” warrants a larger sign at Westfield Hawthorn, said John Genovese, Westfield’s senior vice president of development. “We’re really trying to change the game here. We want something that is visible.”
Some balked at the idea of such a large sign.
“I certainly think you have a great product here in terms of what you’re trying to do with the mall, don’t get me wrong. But 48 feet?” Williams said.
Trustee James Schultz said he’d support pylon signs under 40 feet tall.
“Forty feet is still 15 feet bigger than anything we’ve got,” he said.
Officials also debated whether to allow the signs’ LED screens to promote brands and products, or to limit the messages to specific stores with which Westfield Hawthorn contracts.
“I just don’t want to be driving down [Route] 60 and seeing Tide or Hanes underwear” on the digital display, Williams said.
Others said they supported the mall's plans to change with the times.
“This is our bread and butter," said Trustee Cynthia Hebda. "If we don’t start to make some changes, those doors are going to close and we’re going to have an empty mall."
Because the discussion took place during a committee of the whole meeting, trustees could not take formal action Tuesday night. They did, however, direct staff members to draft an ordinance including the provisions needed to move the redevelopment proposal forward. In addition to the various special uses and variations the plans call for, the proposed ordinance will include a suggestion to allow 40-foot pylon signs — 8 feet shorter than mall officials asked — at Hawthorn’s entrances.
It will also include a provision for up to 200 amusement devices at a proposed Dave & Busters on the mall’s campus. Representatives from the entertainment company did not speak at this week’s meeting.
The multi-faceted redevelopment plan received overall approval earlier this month from the village’s Planning and Zoning Commission. The Village Board is expected to review and vote on the ordinance in March.