Speaking to south Evanston residents Tuesday, Autobarn owner Richard Fisher pledged that he would be a good neighbor if the city approves an expansion plan for the car dealership at the former Shure Brothers facility, 222 Hartrey Ave.
“I can make you a promise that it will be 5,000 times more beautiful and landscaped and clean and nice,” he told eighth ward residents during the meeting at the Levy Center. “Any neighbors that are there won’t be able to tell we are there.”
Autobarn is currently in contract on the property, which has remained vacant for the last several years since the city denied the current owner’s request to change the zoning to build an Orthodox Jewish School. If the purchase goes through, Fisher said the dealership plans to store 600 new and 300 used cars at 222 Hartrey, and move its Mazda and Volkswagen parts and service centers from the current location on Chicago Avenue.
There are several contingencies in the contract, however, as the car dealership is seeking a tax break to help fund the cost of restoration and expansion. Autobarn will not purchase the property unless the city approves an extension of a sales tax sharing agreement that expired in 2013 and extends the Howard-Hartrey tax-increment financing district to include the property, according to Fisher. Autobarn is also seeking a Cook County property tax incentive.
“It’s a big project, there’s a lot of work that’s got to be done,” Fisher said, adding that without the financial support from the city and the county, “it just wouldn’t be feasible.”
Neighbors at the meeting were generally supportive of Autobarn, which has operated in Evanston for more than 20 years. However, they did have concerns about how traffic from the dealership might affect their neighborhood.
Anna Cavey, who lives nearby, said she was worried about the kids who ran around their neighborhood, often playing in the streets.
“How is that going to change with this gigantic car dealership, right behind our little tot lot park and really quiet streets?”
Fisher explained that customers would access the parts and service centers from an entrance on Howard Street, where they would follow an access road around the back of the shopping center to enter the Autobarn property.
As for Brummel Place, which connects the property to Hartrey Avenue and the residential neighborhoods north of Howard Street, Fisher said the street would be blocked off with an electronic gate, and only 10 employees would have keycards. Brummel Place was originally built as a private access road for the Shure Brothers Company, but neighbors have long been using it as a cut-through to Jewel-Osco and the other shops on Howard Street. Some were disappointed to hear they would lose the shortcut, but others said it was worth it to have the property developed.
“I like the plan for this hideous nightmare that I see back there now,” said Scott Hallen, who lives just a few blocks away. “We can’t have empty properties back there.”
Hallen said he often saw people working on trucks at the property, had noticed cars stored on the grounds and even heard screeching tires at night. Having a committed owner like Autobarn would solve that problem, he said.
“If someone’s going to come in, let it be someone we want to keep in Evanston,” Hallen said.
Loraine Norman, who lives on Grey Avenue, said she was still worried about traffic coming through the neighborhood due to the Autobarn business, particularly short-cutters coming down Brummel or Grey Avenue to avoid the signal at Howard and Dodge.
“Originally, when I moved here, it was a quiet neighborhood,” Norman said. Now, she said, with the shopping centers on Howard Street, the items on her shelves often shake from the increased traffic.
But Fisher said he believed most people would take McCormick to the service center, then take a left on Howard, because it’s a quick route that avoids the traffic of Howard Street.
Neighbor Manon Kavesky said she did not believe traffic from the Autobarn expansion would create a serious problem for the neighborhood.
“I think this noise about traffic is just baloney,” she told Patch after the meeting. “I think they’ll be good neighbors.”
If Autobarn obtains the tax breaks it is seeking and opens the new property, Fisher estimated that the company could increase its total sales revenue by 20 to 30 percent within five years, from $90 million in projected sales this year to well over $130 million. Asked how much that would increase city tax rolls, Fisher said he wasn't sure of the exact number, but said it would be a "substantial" amount.
“Since we opened in 1992, the No. 1 problem in terms of doing business in Evanston with a car dealership is, where do you put stuff and where do you get it ready,” he said.
Expanding on Hartrey, he said, is “the answer to a lot of our problems.”
Before the project can move forward however, the city council must vote on an extension of the sales tax sharing agreement, the county must consider the property tax incentive and the city must determine whether the TIF district can be extended.
In order to extend Howard-Hartrey TIF district (which expires in 2015) the city will follow the standard process for creating a TIF district, according to economic development division manager Johanna Nyden. That process began in August and will probably wrap up this fall, she said.
The next step is for all of the taxing bodies affected, including the local school districts, to make a nonbinding recommendation for a public hearing. That meeting is scheduled for Sept. 12, according to Nyden.
Assuming the taxing bodies support the extension of the TIF district, there will be a public hearing scheduled on Oct. 21, she said. Ultimately, it is up to a city council vote.