When news broke that , I couldn’t have been more excited. But a few weeks later, I learned the city is considering purchasing property adjacent to the proposed Trader Joe’s site at a cost of $2 million.
Cue the screeching tires.
I suppose it was a bit naive to think TJs would just set up shop without anything in it for them. Our droves of hopeful customers weren’t enough. Our nearby CTA and Metra stations weren’t enough. They also want a place for customers to park. Reasonable, but I’d figured when the announcement was made by Mayor Tisdahl about TJs coming to Evanston, the deal was done.
I mentioned my surprise and trepidation to my alderman, Don Wilson, but also added that I didn’t know how far the parking-structure money would go toward other things the city needs. My other question was, is it a deal breaker with TJs if we don’t purchase the adjacent properties and build a parking structure next to the proposed store?
Word got back to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz that I had some questions. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Mr. Bobkiewicz, asking if I’d like to meet for coffee to talk.
Cue more screeching tires ... a loud thump-thump ... and then a crash.
You'll rarely find me discussing financial matters willingly. Not even with my husband (well, that’s not true, but truth be told, those conversations never go well. I usually end up crying, trying to explain why the budget didn’t seem to fit my spending, and … well … you get it). The thought of sitting down with the city manager of Evanston to talk about real estate purchases and City Council discussions gave me pause. I guess I do okay writing a column about my opinion on happenings around town, but this felt out of my league. So, I did the only thing I could: I pretended I knew what I was doing.
We met at Evanston’s on March 23 and, for those who care, I don’t recall what I wore. I had two sick kids at home so I don’t even remember if I brushed my hair before I left the house; however, it did occur to me that the more “made up” I looked, the more goofy I’d come off. Disheveled might imply brilliantly unkempt, right? At least, that’s what I told myself.
My biggest concern was being able to write fast enough so I wouldn’t miss any of the details. I parked in front of the new Subway next to Einstein’s bagels (btw, Evanston now has more than six Subway sandwich shops) and messed with the voice recorder on my iPhone on my way toward the café. I figured you'd be a happier reader if I recorded the conversation.
He packed a lot into our 28-minute discussion, so I'm breaking it into a few parts. Today's column addresses my initial questions about Trader Joe's parking. Tomorrow, I'll focus on why Trader Joe's picked this particular spot where there are so many other grocery stores, and how Mr. Bobkiewicz sees the arrival of Trader Joe's as benefiting and as well. Then, on Wednesday, I'll share the part of our talk where he addressed the broader economic development initiatives in the city, such as those along Howard Street.
Patch: What I was surprised by when I saw in Evanston Now that there’s this additional cost … was that known by the City when the Trader Joe’s announcement was made?
Sure. From the very beginning. So, one of the challenges we faced was, when do you go public about something? We’ve been working on Trader Joe’s for a long time … over a year of active discussion. We were getting to the point where Alderman Wynn was getting concerned that unless we made a formal announcement … that the neighbors wouldn’t know about it. She didn’t want the neighbors to hear through the grapevine, “Oh, did you hear Trader Joe’s is coming to the Blockbuster site?” So, we wanted the community to know as soon as possible.
[A lot of people were] reluctant to go public with this and so there was a signed lease. [There’d been a] bad incident back in 2008 where [individuals said] “they’re comin’ to town, they’re comin’ to town, they’re comin’ to town … oh, they’re not comin’ to town.” So the city was not happy about that. Trader Joe’s wasn’t happy about that. So, the piece that had to happen was a signed lease. So once there was a signed lease, we thought it was important to move forward to announce to the world that it was coming. We didn’t talk about any other details. To a couple of members of the press who asked, “So what’s this all about? What’s the deal?” we said, ‘We’re here just to announce that it’s happening, not the rest of the deal.’ And so, in the meantime, we were talking with Teraco, the developer all this time, because there wasn’t ever going to be enough parking. And so for Trader Joe’s to come, there was a minimum number of parking spaces that needed to be created, and that parcel didn’t have them. There was really no other place in Evanston that made sense to put it, so we knew all along there was going to have to be additional parking, so there’s two parcels involved in addition to the Blockbuster parcel. There’s the parcel with the tanning salon and then there’s the additional parcel to the north which is a house.”
And that’s owned by Northwestern?
But is it used residentially right now?
Yes, there’s someone living there. So, the developer bought the Blockbuster parcel last summer. Quietly. So that was a done deal. The developer did a deal for the second parcel, which was pretty straightforward. The third parcel … we really didn’t know who owned it and through much looking discovered NU owned it and so there were discussions with Northwestern which, to this day, aren’t complete.
So we announced it was happening, then we had to talk about the parking. We knew all along that they were gonna need help with parking and, from the very beginning, my feeling was, better that the city participate with parking than the other ways the city could have participated, which would have been with either just cash or cash over time through a rebate with sales tax. So my thought was – again, this is from a year-plus ago – let’s participate … if you can get it together … we’ll participate by buying the property for the parking and then have an arrangement for the use of the property. And then, if something bad ever happens, we still have space for parking because that neighborhood is pretty parking-impacted.
Worst-case scenario … the city still owns the property, so it’s not like we’ve given sales tax revenue to a business that then goes belly up and we have nothing to show for it. And it also gives us an opportunity to control the use of the property moving forward. It’s a 25-year lease. What’s basically happening is that Trader Joe’s is leasing property from the developer. Trader Joe’s isn’t building a building. All they’re doing is leasing property at a fixed amount of money. As 25 years goes on, Trader Joe’s may say, ‘We’ve done so well in Evanston we’re gonna go down the street …' we then control the future use of that parcel because we own the property.
That was the decision I made as city manager very early on, and the reality was, this went on for a year; we had no certainty that anything was going to happen. We didn’t have developers coming to us saying, ‘We’ve got Trader Joe’s, we’ve got Trader Joe’s,’ so these folks at Teraco, they’re smart and have done deals and projects around the North Shore, so we had every confidence … but time kept passing … so until we knew they had a deal, all the discussions regarding parking were really put on a back burner.
But then, once they had a deal, they became on the front burner. So, we had the item on the agenda March 19, for the first parcel. The Northwestern discussions are not concluded. I have every confidence that we will conclude them successfully, but they’re not done. So, we’re recommending the Council continue the item, cause I want to bring the whole shootin’ match back to the Council, because I think there were some questions raised at the Council meeting that made sense: What’s the deal for the use of the parking lot? What other ways can it be used by the neighborhood over time? All legitimate questions which I think we need to answer before we ask the Council to spend dollar one.
So we’re gonna come back on April 10 which is the next Council meeting, with  the second reading of the first parcel,  with at very least a resolution authorizing me to continue negotiating on the Northwestern parcel with a dollar amount, and the third would be a license agreement between the city and the developer on the use of the property, and that’s the extent of the deal.
A couple of questions. First, the alley access?
There is no alley.
[Sipping water and offering a confused expression]: There is no…?
Okay, so now you get into some of the peripheral things.
And the [incorrect] stuff that’s floating around out there...
So, Morty Shapiro, the president of Northwestern University, was in a regular meeting he has with reporters from The Daily Northwestern, and somehow, and I’m not quite sure how, the issue of Trader Joe’s comes up. President Shapiro expressed some concern that the university wasn’t involved in this announcement because the university (and I’m paraphrasing President Shapiro) was playing an integral role in this with [using air quotes] an alley or something. Well, it wasn’t really an alley … it was this other parcel. So we reached out to the president six months ago about this, so that’s what he referred to. So then, when he said 'an alley or something,' people thought 'Oh my gosh, what do you mean an alley?' There’s an existing alley. It stays as is. There will likely be ingress and egress needed for deliveries. Trader Joe’s is centralized; it’s not like Jewel where the bread guy comes and the Pepsi guy comes. … Trader Joe’s, it’s one truck.
And for the record, [Northwestern’s] been very cooperative. We asked them to give [the parcel] to us and they declined [he said, smiling]. I did indeed ask and they politely declined, but I’m trying to make a good deal for the property.
Do you have a sense of why Northwestern University owns that building?
Yes, I do. Because 100-plus years ago, the university reached out to as many property owners that were interested and said, ‘We will buy your property and we will let your children and your descendents go to Northwestern for free.’ So this was 1880, 1890, 1900. It’s in that timeframe we believe the university acquired this property, and it was part of a larger sort of announcement in the farm town that was Evanston in those days. The university had money, so that’s how they acquired the property.