More than two years before the corner property at Franklin and Harlem streets ended up in the hands of Rod Nunley, an auto mechanic trying to stake out his future, a group of seasoned developers sat down with the owner to acquire the lot. They haggled over prices, standing lease agreements, environmental cleanup and handfuls of other legal matters that seemed to snarl the negotiations at every turn.

Then, just months after another closing fell through, said Sherree Krisco of Bern Realty, a surprise bidder – Nunley – scooped up the lot. For almost two decades Nunley has operated the Elite Tire and Auto business to the north of the coveted 7201 Franklin St. parcel. The auto shop is located on land that is owned by Krisco.

“Walking away from that property was the biggest mistake they made and the best thing I could have ever gotten,” Nunley said recently of the purchase.

Nunley and Krisco are now two of the pivotal characters in a showdown over property development along Harlem Avenue, and the stakes are apparently high. Krisco is representing her mother, who she says is the sole proprietor behind Circle Plaza LLC, and reportedly has big plans for the neighborhood. The company already owns several adjoining properties, including the CVS pharmacy, Dunkin Donuts and of course Nunley’s garage immediately north of the Franklin Street parcel.

Nunley, meanwhile, is asking the village for permission to build his own repair shop fronting onto Harlem Avenue, just steps from the el station that has provided him with a steady stream of customers for years, he said. The problem is he needs a few variances to the zoning code and his project doesn’t fit with Forest Park’s Comprehensive Plan for the area.

According to at least one village official, the comprehensive plan calls for exactly the type of project Krisco is suggesting.

“This is not a fantasy,” Village Administrator Mike Sturino said. “This is a major, major development.”

Exactly what that development looks like isn’t clear to the general public and both Sturino and Krisco are reluctant to share details. At a recent zoning board meeting where Nunley’s plans for a garage were aired, his architect referred to Krisco’s development as a “ghost” that Nunley is being forced to do battle with.

Krisco and her attorney, Alan Kaminski, compared their vision for Harlem Avenue to what already exists just a few blocks north at the intersection with Lake Street in Oak Park and River Forest. Sturino confirmed that in the course of at least a year’s worth of discussions with Krisco he has been presented with “more than a few drawings” as to the potentials for the area.

But from their view in the private sector, Krisco and her brother-in-law, developer Tim Hague, are leery that releasing greater details will do anything other than drive up prices for real estate they may still need to acquire. And in the public sector, Sturino said he’s trying to encourage responsible growth while ensuring residents that they’ll have their say.

In an interview regarding the Harlem Avenue corridor, Sturino took umbrage with a Review editorial calling for more disclosure on Krisco’s proposal. Krisco has made no formal application to the village.

“I would take great exception to your editorial that the community needs a full vetting of a proposal to determine whether it’s better than an auto garage,” Sturino said.

Before Nunley bought the land in August 2006 from Ron Rott, he said he wasn’t eyeing the property. According to Nunley, Rott approached him. But he called the decision a “no-brainer” in part because rumors have swirled for years that Krisco intended to eventually develop her mother’s properties. Nunley’s lease with the LLC for the shop at 25 N. Harlem Avenue expires June 30, 2009.

Rott could not be reached for comment.

According to Krisco, the long-term lease agreements with the LLC’s other tenants also expire in 2009.

“My property is zoned for automotive use. I own the property,” Nunley said. “In my mind I have a right to do that. It’s not like we just started [doing business] here. I will find it hard to believe that they can deny me a building permit.”

Nunley said he’s heard several offers to buy his land, but has never seen anything in writing. Out of frustration, he said, he demanded $5 million for the property, though he paid less than $900,000. More recent efforts to negotiate a land swap with a third party don’t seem plausible, said Nunley, and he has no interest in moving far from the train station.

“People really don’t realize this is how I feed my family,” Nunley said. “Nobody seems to get that, you know.”

In refusing to sell – thus far – Nunley said he doesn’t see why the two projects are mutually exclusive. During his June hearing before the zoning board, Nunley spelled out his willingness to adopt whatever color scheme Krisco uses for her project.

Krisco conceded that Nunley’s garage wouldn’t prohibit her from further developing the corridor, however, it would rob the community of Harlem Avenue’s potential. Her deceased father, the founder of Bern Realty, worked on a number of projects in the area and her family’s ties to the region won’t permit her to short-change the community, she said.

“We live here,” Krisco said. “My son lives in Forest Park. We are not some big conglomerate that’s coming in here.”

Krisco said she has repeatedly offered to construct another auto shop within her project for Nunley, though it would not face Harlem Avenue. Nunley said he purchased the land at the corner of Franklin and Harlem streets with his retirement in mind and has no intention of being at the mercy of a lease agreement.

“The reality here is there are a lot of competing interests that have to be dealt with,” Kaminski, Krisco’s attorney said. “There’s an old saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. Some concessions probably have to be made by everybody.”