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Why Evanston's West Side Is Stagnating

Opinion columnist Christine Wolf sits down with Evanston’s City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and Economic Development Planner Paul Zalmezak to get the story on Evanston’s West Side.

Last week, I wrote about how Evanston’s west side appears to languish behind the rest of the city. This week, I wanted to get some answers. So I met with City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and economic development planner Paul Zalmezak. Here's a summary of our conversation.

Did Dominick’s prevent Planet Fitness from locating at Evanston Plaza? I hear the grocery store has a right to refuse certain properties there.

I’m here to tell you: Dominick’s didn’t force Planet Fitness out of Evanston Plaza. According to Bobkiewicz, Planet Fitness changed its mind and went to Main Street Commons—although the grocery store does indeed have a lease giving it first right of refusal for many types of properties, including other food stores and businesses that take up too much parking space (insert eyes rolling to the back of skull here).

Apparently, Planet Fitness had hoped to open two Planet Fitness locations in Evanston, one in Evanston Plaza and one elsewhere. Bobkiewicz says the city reached out to Dominick's/Safeway to help the deal go through, and whenBonnie Investment Group approached Dominick's for the Planet Fitness deal, Dominick's gave the O.K.; then Planet Fitness changed it's mind.

The city manager maintains that the Safeway-owned grocery chain has a dying business model, however, and city staff are preparing for the possibility that it may eventually close, leaving a large vacancy at Evanston Plaza.

"The city wants to be ready when change comes...so we won't have to borrow," Bobkiewicz says. Thus aldermen passed a tax-increment financing district at Evanston Plaza — the first TIF presented since the recession.

Why doesn’t the city consider hiring a business strategist to market/rebrand the area?

"We're willing to be helpful if [an established group] commits," says Bobkiewiecz. But, he adds, "We're not in a position to bankroll, nor do we want to presuppose what businesses want." He says other Evanston business associations have attracted in-kind contributions and efforts to their revitalization efforts., citing examples like food truck events.

What is the plan for the Bonnie Investment Group, which owns Evanston Plaza, to access the TIF funds for improvement of this half-dead plaza?

Bobkiewicz says one current tenant in the plaza hopes to expand and that Bonnie is trying to bring in another tenant. There are $2 million in accessible funds to be used in the first 7 years -- between now and when the Dominick's lease is up.

"Part of the rub is the community sees the TIF and is frustrated," Bobkiewicz adds. 

What's also difficult, Bobkiewicz and Zalmezak explain, is attracting businesses who want to be here.

"Your market has to be within a five-mile radius," Zalmezak says. And unfortunately, potential businesses often see the north west side of Chicago and Lincolnwood Town Center as competing forces with Evanston Plaza.

What happened to the West Village Business Association that sponsored the "Making it Happen" event at the plaza in May 2011?

As this column goes online, Evanston West Village Business Association’s Facebook page appears sluggish, and its website has only posted and promoted a few events. The truth is, the association’s still in its infancy, and it’ll take a lot of work and commitment to get the word out.

“We’ve supported [the association] as a staff,” Zalmezak says, adding, “…there’s nobody leading it now. The founder left the area. Since then, there’s no critical mass.”

Bobkiewicz says the city is happy to provide support, but needs direction from the business owners themselves. “We don’t manage business associations. That’s not what we’re here to do.”

The city does provide some limited financial aid for businesses to make improvements. Additionally, other neighborhoods have maximized their economic vitality with active associations, including Chicago-Dempster Merchant Association, Central Street Business Association and the Main Street Station Merchants Association.

My Takeaways From Our Conversation:

Here's what I concluded. If you’re looking to establish a business on the West Side of Evanston, step right up, but first put on your thinking cap:

So, all you potential businesses looking to come to the West Side, just give us a second. We’re still trying to sort things out.

Last Week: What's the Story With Evanston's West Side?

Dickelle Fonda February 11, 2013 at 10:56 PM
For many years residential and business neighbors have had discussions with city staff and aldermen about the the Plaza (and concurrently the neighborhood) being stigmatized by the continued false perception that the area is a high crime, unsafe area that is populated with residents who are unable or unwilling to support quality business in that plaza. A few weeks ago I heard the plaza referred to as “muggers mall” while at a meeting in NW Evanston !!! ! Demographics and EPD crime statistics for the area do not support any part of this perception, yet it persists. Those of us who have chosen this neighborhood and who work hard to maintain its stability and unique character also know that this is an inaccurate characterization. However when it comes to attracting businesses to this area perception is reality. The question posed in this column about the possibility of hiring a marketing and branding strategist to help shift that perception is an intriguing one that the plaza owners and the city might want to consider. If marketing and rebranding techniques can sell to the public products and politicians that we didn’t think we wanted, why not try this strategy at this plaza? In order to “attract business that wants to be here”, there needs to be more radical analysis of why that is not happening. (radical meaning looking at “root” causation) and perception may be one of the roots.!!!
Lonson Williams February 12, 2013 at 04:41 AM
Dileep gets to the main problem at the end of his comment: the mall is a design nightmare. These structures were designed to be disposable and cannot be reused in any meaningful way with few exceptions (like the Dance center). The city should have driven a harder bargain with Bonnie and tried to get them to redevelop it in a mixed use fashion by integrating the grid streets and making it into an actual city block instead of a giant parking lot with a few large storefronts. Instead, they create the TIF, and Bonnie is not interested in doing anything unique with the property. I don't get the sense that Wally recognizes how much the design element is the big handicap at the corner (that goes for the KFC building also). Dempster-Dodge brings a little bit of Schaumburg-style to Evanston. It just doesn't fit.
Stewart Thrower February 12, 2013 at 07:09 PM
Questioning the "rolled eyes" of the author. First right is very common in grocery anchored centers. I'm not a fan of Dominick's, however it has been proven that lack of parking (or the perception) hurts grocers especially in locations such as this property. It is in their best interest to thoroughly vet the implications of any new tenants at the property.
CHB February 14, 2013 at 08:27 PM
Ms. Fonda, With all due respect as a resident of Dempster St. not 5 blocks from the mall, it has long been problematic. When my 22 year old was an infant I stopped pushing him there in the stroller because of the language he could acquire in an afternoon at the Dollar Store. Once, when young moms were approached by another parent to clean up their language around all our little ones , it took a store owner breaking up a brawl and threatening to call the police to keep it in check. Have you conveniently forgotten the long awaited clothing store which after being held up 3 times in its first 2 months of operation had no choice but to close? AJ Wright was frosting on the cake...just a cheap operation that attracted a bad element to the neighborhood. Do you not read the EPD Blotter? A shooting at Mc Donald's and a constant stream of thefts and arrests at Dominick's doesn't bode well for further development. Get real. Start talking up civil behavior and pushing job training for youth on the West side. That would impact the Dempster Dodge development as much as anything. Attracting another restaurant or family breakfast place or a workout facility , H&M or Home Goods store will only happen when we can promote the area as safe and welcoming. Hats off to Panino's and Dance Center Evanston for hanging in there!
lucas February 19, 2013 at 01:30 AM
Put in a Dave & Buster's restaurant/arcade

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