Sean Fitzpatrick, the owner of Astoria’s Illahee Apartments, and Chris Holen, the chef and co-owner at Baked Alaska, were playing poker one night, lamenting the loss of the J.C. Penney Co. store on Commercial Street last year, when they had an epiphany.
“I don’t think anyone else had any idea what we were talking about, but it was like, ‘OK, you know; let’s do it,’” said Fitzpatrick, who recently purchased the building after four months of negotiations.
He and Holen are reimagining the 6,500-square-foot main floor of the department store as the Astoria Oregon Marketplace, a high-end indoor food court and tap house connecting the retail corridors along Commercial and Duane streets.
A drawback of opening a retail store or restaurant in Astoria is biting off too large a space, Holen said. He started Baked Alaska in a trailer, before moving to a small slot of a storefront on 14th Street and later opening a larger space on Pier 12.
Fitzpatrick and Holen have divided the main floor of the former J.C. Penney into several blocks, each approximately 15-by-15-feet, the size of the kitchen in an annex of Baked Alaska. The spaces will be built out into fully functional kitchens for three new restaurants to customize and quickly open.
The partners are also looking several other vendors, such as a sandwich shop, coffee stand or ice cream station, that require a kitchen.
“It’s an opportunity to see if their business works,” Holen said.
He envisions a diverse lineup of cuisines, different from surrounding restaurants, each with their own customized facade. Anchoring the restaurants will be a tap house Holen is planning with more than 50 beers, wines and ciders on draft, focusing on Astoria and Pacific Northwest producers.
In the middle of the court will be communal seating at long tables. While restaurants will have control over what they offer, the market will try to be as close to zero-waste as possible, Holen said, with compostable silverware and glasses instead of bottles and cans.
Contractors brought in by Fitzpatrick are ripping out carpet and linoleum, revealing the fir floor beneath. They are taking out walls and uncovering windows on Commercial and Duane streets, turning J.C. Penney’s former display cases into seating areas.
The historical elements of the 1924 building will be restored, with reclaimed wood and other elements incorporated throughout and an open design so visitors can see between Commercial and Duane streets, Fitzpatrick said. The utilities and other aspects of the building will also be upgraded to be more energy efficient.
The tiling and other decorative features from the Commercial Street entrance will remain, with the J.C. Penney Co. sign displayed inside. The new name of the space, A.O. Market Pl., will be a nod to its previous tenant.
“If the stars align, we’d like to open in October,” Fitzpatrick said.
After the food court and tap house are up and running, Fitzpatrick and Holen will start looking to fill the other spaces in the 14,000-square-foot building.
Upstairs from the main floor is a 2,500-square-foot mezzanine where the partners hope to add a clothing or other retailer.
“We would love to have something kind of like what J.C. Penney did, maybe more along a boutique level,” Fitzpatrick said.
Downstairs is another 3,500 square feet. The partners hope to bring in some form of family entertainment, be it miniature golf, an arcade, an escape room or karaoke booths.
“We are encouraging people to bring us their ideas,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick is focusing on dealing with contractors, while his brother, Shannon, is dealing with leases. Holen will manage the food side of the marketplace.
The irony of the building’s new life is that J.C. Penney’s downtown location was still profitable when the company decided to leave, Fitzpatrick said.
“It should not have been closed,” he said. “The trend is away from malls and back to the downtown.
“The cool thing would have been for them to sell the building to me, and they stayed, and then we would have had our J.C. Penney.”