Evanston Plaza’s new owners are determined to revitalize the west-side shopping center to its once bustling ways, and a Tuesday morning meeting between the owners and a west side business association doubled as both a brainstorming sessions and a formal .
A representative for Bonnie Investment Group LLC, the Chicago-based real estate firm that purchased the plaza for $8.1 million last month, met with members of the Evanston West Village Business Association, Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd Ward) and City of Evanston employees at Perla Café, 1813 Dempster St., to discuss the property’s future development.
On the mind of local proprietors were what businesses Bonnie Investment Group aimed to attract and how the plaza’s new owners would avoid the pitfalls that landed the current shopping center with a multitude of vacant storefronts.
Scott Inbinder, principal at Bonnie Investment Group, said the plaza’s numerous vacancies gave the developer a blank slate, and to some extent, provided them the opportunity to create a fresh identity for the plaza by attracting both national and local tenants.
However, he also asked local business owners to be patient, warning that the process would likely take some time and explaining that the plaza owner’s would have to adapt to market demands.
“There was a day when you used to choose which tenants you wanted put into your centers,” Inbinder said. “You used to pick tenants that you thought would be great compliments to each other…I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case anymore. Some of it is really market demand. We’re going to do the best we can to reach out to a whole host of local and national retailers and hope that we can fill it as quickly as possible.”
Inbinder declined to name specific national brands that had expressed initial interest in the property’s larger spaces. Evanston Plaza’ vacancies currently include 25,000 square foot and 38,000 square foot spaces.
One difficulty in marketing Evanston Plaza, Inbinder said, was the property’s size: viewed as too small by some larger chains, which might instead vie to settle in a shopping center the size of nearby Westfield Old Orchard Mall, and viewed as too small by some local businesses, which might fear that they would be lost in the shadow of national stores.
Inbinder listed off several early ideas for businesses that he could envision filling the plaza and West Village members chipped in, as well. Suggestions included a martial arts studio, a medical clinic, a sporting goods store, a health club, a bowling alley, sit-down restaurants, national retailers and a new space for the Evanston Art Center, which one meeting attendee said was looking to move.
But even some of these ideas were shot down as nearly unfeasible.
Dominick’s grocery store, currently the plaza’s largest tenant, has a lease that gives the grocer the ability to impose restrictions on what businesses cannot rent within Evanston Plaza. Three such constraints mentioned at the meeting were “excessive office space”, “a lot of food uses” and a bowling alley, an idea so popular among Evanston residents that it was voted number 93 out of over 2,000 public suggestions made to the city as part of the recent Evanston150 project.
The list of restricted uses could shrink in the near future, though, as Inbinder said that Dominick’s had indicated that it might be willing to allow some previously-forbidden businesses to come in the interest of reviving the plaza.
For now, aside from marketing the plaza, Bonnie Investment Group’s most immediate changes to the center will be some landscaping in the spring, installing better signage and some minor repair work.
Paul Zalmezak, economic development coordinator for the City of Evanston, said that city representatives had previously met with Inbinder and that they felt confident in Bonnie Investment Group’s ability to set Evanston Plaza in right direction.
“I can’t think of a better developer to have,” Zalmezak said. “I appreciate [Inbinder’s] honesty and his realism. He understands the market.”
Two decades ago, Evanston plaza thrived with that tenants included Toys-R-Us, Frank’s Nursery, Pizza Hut, Fretters and Phar-Mor, but as some of these national chains went bankrupt and others reduced in size, business dried up. Since then, a number of large businesses have come and gone, and as recently as the end of last year, the when the brand was consolidated. The plaza’s most recent owner, Joseph Freed & Associates LLC, lost the property after it used the shopping center as cross-collateral to finance a failed downtown Chicago real estate project, and with .
Bonnie Investment Group owns 1.7 million square feet worth of shopping centers in the Chicago and Millwaukee areas.