Unbeknownst to many, Evanston has a West Village.
A hip part of town to which residents and visitors might one day flock on a Sunday afternoon to hear a music recital or catch some local theater before spending the evening lounging in the outdoor seating area of a nearby restaurant or café, perhaps stopping at one of the adjacent retail outlets for a while to browse for a new outfit, all the while admiring the prominent public art highlighting contiguous green spaces that dot that surrounding area.
No, this picturesque business district does not currently exist. But this is the vision of the Evanston West Village Business Association, the recently-formed, newly-dubbed Dempster-Dodge business collective, which has held monthly meetings for nearly half a year conceptualizing and planning how to brand the surrounding region as Evanston’s new “destination area.”
Diane Testa, owner of Koi Consulting Group, a local small business located in the Heartwood Center at 1818 Dempster St., has played an integral role in the association’s brainstorming sessions. But she said the group’s genesis derives from a more organic process of local business owners simply talking to each other and realizing that they shared many of the same worries, interests and hopes regarding the future of the neighborhood.
“That’s how we all came together, by hearing each voice saying, ‘what are you concerns, what are your issues, and what do you really want to see in this area?’” Testa said. “And that’s where we came together a few months ago, to really hear everyone, and then to create the objectives and the vision. … To ask, what kind of an area is this?”
If the new association hopes to successfully brand the area, then Testa’s question regarding the business district’s personality is a necessary one, specifically because historically the answer has been vague.
Seemingly void of a distinguished identity to call its own, in the past the Dempster-Dodge corridor has taken a backseat to some of Evanston’s better-known shopping districts.
Unlike the Downtown Evanston or Central Street areas, Dempster-Dodge does not benefit from proximity to a heavily trafficked CTA or Metra stop. Neither a library nor movie theater sits within short walking distance. Sit-down restaurants and trendy boutiques have tended to set down roots further north or east. And a carousel of flash-in-the-pan establishments and failed nationally-recognized chain franchises has left in its wake a host of foreboding vacant storefronts that suggest the locale is unstable for business.
In many ways, negative public perception is the largest obstacle for the West Village to overcome. However, it is the first problem they aim to address, in part, by gaining momentum through public events like this coming weekend’s two-day-long "Makin’ It Happen in the West Village" festival, a pop-up-art gallery, turned business promotion, turned family oriented, aiming to highlight the area’s potential. Additionally, the business association plans to create a logo, website, and local signage promoting the newly named region as a community destination.
Another key element is altering any public apprehension that the neighborhood is dangerous or crime-ridden, a fear that was heightened after an April 15 incident in which during a confrontation with another group of teens inside the McDonald's near the corner of Dempster and Dodge.
Susan Guderley, of the City’s community and economic development department, said representatives from the West Village association will likely meet next month with Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington, as well as neighborhood beat officers, to discuss concerns and crime-reduction strategies in the area.
Evanston Police Commander Tom Guenther said that he could not speak to the extent of crime in the area or confirm if it was gang related, but said the police department has longstanding relationships and lines of communication with local residents and businesses.
“The area is well policed,” Guenther said. “It has been and is a very stable area. We also work extremely well and hard with established neighborhood watch groups in that area. … This festival they’re putting on is just another sign of how committed the neighborhood residents are.”
Testa said she hopes that suggested beautification efforts, such as an increased emphasis on public art and green spaces, can serve a dual purpose, referring to studies linking aesthetically pleasing, green areas with a reduction in crime.
While efforts to make a united west Evanston area seem more appealing or less threatening may raise the profile of the business district for some, ultimately it will be the quality and assortment of businesses that drive traffic. And though even in the association’s infancy the group’s businesses are diverse, ranging from dance workshops to construction companies to acupuncturists, they are hardly the type of highly frequented mega stores that can fill 60,000-square-foot vacancies and draw significant foot traffic for surrounding establishments.
In many ways Evanston Plaza has always been the heart of the Dempster-Dodge corridor, acting as both a driving force and a health indicator of the surrounding business community.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, customer draws like Toys-R-Us, Frank’s Nursery, electronics and appliances retailer Fretters, and the discount drug store Phar-Mor anchored the shopping center, providing a steady stream of customers. But as some of these national chains went bankrupt and others reduced in size, business dried up and Evanston Plaza was left with slim pickings, a trend evident even as recent as a few months back when as it consolidated that portion of its brand.
Some local business owners have blamed the lull in big business on a string of property managers that wouldn’t cut breaks to attract large corporations and failed to actively seek out brands that could flourish in the plaza. Others went as far as to accuse former-owner Joseph Freed & Associates LLC of having no intentions to develop the property, instead keeping it as mere cross-collateral to help finance the now-failed Block 37 project in downtown Chicago, a gamble that forced the real estate development company to surrender the plaza to a court-appointed receiver last May as part of.
Regardless of recent history, Evanston Plaza may soon have a shot at redemption. At a May 3 foreclosure auction, , and is currently looking to sell to potential developers.
Whoever ends up with the property, though, the City of Evanston will be a valuable and necessary partner to help attract larger businesses to the area. Guderley, of the City’s community and economic development department, said that Evanston would be committed to working with the subsequent owner, whoever that may be, and was already actively seeking national chains to fill the vacant storefronts of Evanston Plaza.
Annette Logan, a City economic development planner, echoed Guderley’s statements.
“The Plaza is a priority for the City of Evanston,” Logan said. “At this point we hope that developers will be coming, and we’re going to be working with them to communicate our vision for the plaza.”
The City has already lent an ear to the new West Village association, as Evanston representatives and Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd Ward) regularly speak and field questions at the collective’s monthly meetings. The business association has also been promoted through the City of Evanston website and newsletter.
Evanston’s West Village is young and it must overcome a long road rife with obstacles before its idealistic vision is realized. But group members seem to have a fresh take, newfound optimism and a knack for asking the kinds of larger questions that begin to paint the area as a cohesive region.
“What kind of feelings do you want people to have when they come to this area?” Testa asks. “What kind of energy do you want to have?”
The official borders of the Evanston West Village Association are Wesley Avenue (east) to Hartrey Avenue (west) and Greenwood Street (north) to Lee Street (south).
The “Makin’ It Happen in the West Village” event will take place on Friday, May 20 from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, May 21 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the southwest corner of Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue in Evanston Plaza.