What is your ideal vision of Evanston Plaza?
What could the shopping center be in the not-so-distant future if few restrictions applied?
These were the questions nearly 30 Evanston residents were asked to answer at a Sunday afternoon Leadership Evanston meeting held at , 1813 Dempster St.
The purpose of the gathering, said organizers, was to encourage residents to think big, to create a bold vision to work toward, to ignore and to record community sentiments that Leadership Evanston members could eventually present to both aldermen and the plaza’s owner.
Conceived as a way to imbue residents with community leadership skills, Leadership Evanston is a program that falls under the umbrella of the , a local nonprofit. The organizers of Sunday’s meeting were part of a 10-month program that began in September. Their goal of assisting Evanston Plaza’s redevelopment serves as their capstone project.
Meeting attendees were asked to envision the neighborhood of their dreams and then determine how Evanston Plaza would fit into that vision. What stores would it comprise? What services would be offered? What ?
“Let’s not limit ourselves on the front end,” said Tim Eberhart, a member of the Leadership Evanston team. “What is unique about our part of Evanston? What are some of our strengths, the assets that we already possess that we can celebrate?”
Integrated diversity, it was widely agreed upon, was central to the character of the neighborhood. Participants also pointed to active neighborhood groups, the community’s proximity to ETHS and Dempster Street’s “gateway to Evanston” feel as advantageous characteristics.
One suggestion for the future of the plaza that was met with nearly universal acclaim was making the shopping center more pedestrian friendly by increasing the number walking paths and green spaces. Several attendees voiced the opinion that the area sacrificed its aesthetic in favor of an overabundance of parking spaces.
One participant said he would like the plaza to carry the feel of a “California outdoor mall”.
Other included a bakery, a bookstore, a landscaping and gardening store, a breakfast diner, a shoe store, a secondhand clothing shop, a community center, a bowling alley, a health-food restaurant, a community theater, bike racks, a Chipotle, a Jewish Deli, a pet daycare, a branch library, a large clothing retailer and small restaurants serving Thai, Mexican or Haitian fare.
But some participants seemed to have trouble ignoring restrictions that might significantly affect the redevelopment process, such as the ability of grocery store, the plaza’s largest tenant, to nix certain types of businesses.
During an , Scott Inbinder, principal at Bonnie Investment Group, , said that Dominick’s lease prohibits any establishment from entering the center that might hurt the grocery store’s sales or would require long-term parking. Possible prohibited uses, according to Inbinder, include a bowling alley, a health club, a sit-down restaurant, any sort of grocery store and tenants requiring “excessive office space”.
But, at a , Inbinder also assured Evanstonians that Dominick’s had indicated it might be willing to allow some previously-forbidden businesses to come in the interest of reviving the plaza.
At Sunday’s meeting, Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd Ward) pointed out that the grocery store had yet to turn any potential tenants away.
“I’m not a representative of Dominick’s,” Braithwaite said, “so the best that I can explain is that they have not had an opportunity to say ‘no’ to anyone.”
Braithwaite also encouraged Evanston residents to “be an ambassador” for the city by reaching out to company representatives at favorable businesses and connecting them with city staff.
Another meeting discussion centered on whether the City of Evanston could use the potential of funds from the recently-recommended Dempster-Dodge Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district as leverage or incentive to convince Dominick’s to allow more plaza uses.
Braithwaite said that TIF money could be an incentive for Dominick’s but was hesitant to say more, as the process of creating the TIF is currently unfinished.
Leadership Evanston might hold more meetings to gather public opinion, but the work group is also encouraging residents to express their opinions through an online survey. Meeting organizers said they planned to present their findings to Evanston aldermen at a June City Council session and would reach out to Bonnie Investment Group representatives to set up a potential meeting, as well.
While the Leadership Evanston group has no real power to actualize the future they are helping others envision, group member Natalie Furlett said that both Bonnie and the city have incentive to listen to what the community wants.
“We’re just trying to be a central hub,” Furlett explained.
The Leadership Evanston group focused on helping Evanston Plaza’s redevelopment has dedicated themselves to the project for the past two months, and though their program will officially conclude in June, group members have vowed to continue with their efforts beyond that end date.
At an April 12 meeting, the Joint Review Board, a group comprising members representing the various taxing bodies affected by the proposed TIF district, made a non-binding recommendation to the Evanston City Council to approve the Dempster-Dodge district. The TIF district would provide the city nearly $20 million to spend on Evanston Plaza redevelopment projects over the next 23 years.
Evanston residents will be able to participate in a discussion about the proposed district during a public hearing scheduled for the May 14 City Council meeting. Braithwaite said the April 28 council meeting has been eyed as a tentative date for aldermen to officially approve the TIF district.
Click here to take the Leadership Evanston survey on the future of Evanston Plaza.