After writing a column in February expressing my frustration about the seemingly slow progress of Evanston’s West Side — including a statement that the area’s been plagued by gun violence — 2nd Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite contacted me.
He was not happy.
It was clear Braithwaite didn’t appreciate the negative press about his ward. We spoke for over an hour and, by the end of the conversation, he’d invited me to attend a 2nd Ward meeting to learn about the progress and positivity in and around the area. Also invited was Scott Inbinder, principal of Bonnie Investment Group, the company that owns Evanston Plaza at Dempster and Dodge.
Before I attended the April 11 2nd Ward meeting, I met with City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, started an online petition to bring a bowling alley to Evanston Plaza, and reached out to several bowling centers about the idea. I also reached out to ETHS Athletic Director Chris Livatino, wondering if a bowling center would be used by the ETHS bowling team members (who currently travel to other cities multiple times a week for practices and tournaments). Livatino says the ETHS team prefers regulation sized bowling lanes, and stresses that the practices and tournaments – not to mention families and parties – would draw a consistent crowd, especially in the “off” hours immediately after school.
Scott Inbinder, of Bonnie Investment Group, ; however, it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find interested parties to help figure out a solution. Scratch the surface a bit and you’ll find companies like BMI Gaming who’d set the whole thing up in exactly the size needed. And, when I contacted Wilmette Bowling Center to share details of our petition, the owner sounded interested to talk to city officials. I’m only one person doing a bit of research…so imagine what more hands on deck might do for the area.
“Regarding progress at Evanston Plaza, I know it doesn’t look like there’s been much, but come spring, we’re poised to make improvements and hit the ground running," Inbinder told 2nd ward residents at the meeting. He said Bonnie will paint and renovate canopies throughout most of the center, but the company doesn’t want to invest too much in renovation yet, given the chances that a new anchor tenant may have different ideas.
Inbinder also noted a “challenging” economy, difficulty finding an anchor tenant, and the mall’s large size relative to its neighborhood location. In his estimation, the center should ideally be 65,000 square feet, not 200,000.
Inbinder says he’s still “really optimistic” that he’ll find a new anchor tenant. When I asked how he describes the mall to potential tenants, he said, he gives the following spiel: “Compared with other sites, Evanston Plaza is in a good location, densely populated, with a variety of sizes” in which to build out.
And, when I asked about the possibility of thinking creatively and using that vast, often empty parking lot for alternative gatherings such as farmers’ markets, he nodded in agreement. To me, it seems that the more people we draw to the area, the greater our chances are of finding a match for the space.
Dickelle Fonda, who lives in the 2nd Ward, thanked Inbinder for coming to the meeting, then cut to the chase. “To be perfectly honest, the residents are discouraged,” she said, adding that the intersection of Dempster and Dodge suffers a “perception issue of being not safe, not family friendly,” especially since there’s an empty KFC and a check-cashing business at the corner.
“The plaza being half empty only reinforces those perceptions,” she said, asking Inbinder if he’d ever considered a public relations effort to draw potential business to Evanston Plaza. “Our crime stats prove it’s just as safe as anywhere in Evanston.”
Inbinder said he and Bonnie Investment Group talk to clients every day, stressing the positive developments already going on in the Plaza. “We’re really excited about the new pediatrician’s office coming in. Papa Romeo’s took Domino’s space. The military recruitment office just relocated here from its former spot further north on Dodge. Davita Dialysis, currently on Central Street, is expanding and plans to take 10,000 feet of the former Frank’s Nursery with parking located in the back.”
Alderman Braithwaite chimed in on the area’s progress. “I don’t personally believe the corner is dead,” he said, mentioning Erie Evanston/Skokie Health Center, the expansion of Heartwood Center, and the medical doctors coming into Evanston Plaza. He also mentioned Team Evanston’s new training facility coming to the 1900 block of Dempster as well as the Dance Center Evanston’s potential expansion, and of course, the newly opened Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles (did you know there’s frequent live music AND they’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner?).
Fonda raised another concern: the proliferation of grocery stores coming to Evanston (Trader Joe’s) and beyond (Mariano’s Fresh Market in Skokie) means competition for Dominick’s.
“What’s the longer-term vision if and when Dominick’s leaves?” she asked, confirming with Inbinder that Dominick’s contract is up in 2020.
“The T.I.F. exists for that time,” City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said. “It’s a safety net,” providing $2 million between now and when Dominick’s lease is up.
Inbinder maintained that Dominick’s had no plans to leave.
“Just to be clear, Dominick’s is very happy with its performance in Evanston, with attractive sales volumes,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, I thanked Scott Inbinder for coming. I believe he understands how closely the community is following his progress now, as well as how impatient we’ve grown for results.
I also thanked Alderman Braithwaite for extending an invitation to attend a 2nd ward meeting. There’s a LOT to be excited about around Evanston’s West Side (and I haven’t even covered things south of Dempster). Not only have I come to appreciate the numerous behind-the-scenes efforts going on in the 2nd Ward, I also met several new Evanston friends. If you haven't attended a ward meeting before, I highly recommend it.
Going forward, what are my hopes for the 2nd Ward?
- To see more momentum and involvement from residents and businesses alike. Do you have an idea for the area? Contact Alderman Braithwaite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-801-9386 or Scott Inbinder at Bonnie Investment Group at email@example.com or 708.851.0808 x12.
- To see the Evanston Plaza parking lot filled with creative gatherings similar to a Young Evanston Artists festival.
- To see Bonnie Investment Group and the City of Evanston reach out to Evanston Township High School students to determine what they’d most like to see in Evanston Plaza. They’re the future of our town, so let’s give them a voice in what’s likely keep them here.