On Thursday last week, I poked around town snapping photos of empty storefronts.
I’m particularly amazed that no one’s snapped up the ready-for-action space formerly occupied by Omagio on Orrington. A peek inside reveals an eerie, dusty, Pompeii-esque scene of a restaurant perfectly ready for customers.
Empty storefronts aren’t news in Evanston. .
But when I stopped at 1700 Maple Ave. to snap a photo of (empty but displaying 'WATCH THIS SPACE' signs), I was approached by Howard E. Heim, Superintendent of Church Street Plaza, LLC.
“Can I ask what you’re taking photos of?” he asked. I’m not kidding when I say he resembles a Transformer, covered head-to-toe with equipment.
As I slowly put down my iPhone, I wondered if I was in trouble, so I answered tentatively. “I’m writing a piece for a local news source about the vacant buildings around town. I have a business card,” I said, reaching for my keys to open my car.
“Who do you write for?” he asked in a surprisingly friendly, interested voice.
“It’s an online news source. Patch.com.” I handed him my card and said, “Boy you sure wear a lot of stuff on your uniform.”
“This?” he said, looking down. “I feel like I’m half-naked today. Usually I’m also wearing my tool belt.” He looked down at my card and noticed my email address. “Tinywolf@ aol.com, huh? Tinywolf?”
I shrugged. “It’s easy to remember.”
He laughed. “Yeah, okay. I’ve seen Patch before.” Then he reached into one of a myriad of pockets, pulled out a card of his own, and handed it to me. “What do you want to know?”
Heim smiled and gestured all around. “I’m in charge of all these,” he said, sweeping his gloved hands toward the former Borders Books building, the Century Theater building and its shops, as well as 5 storefronts on Church Street, from American Apparel to STA Travel.
“Well,” I said, “let’s see. I know the Northwestern doctors’ office is going in upstairs here [scheduled to open in November, 2012],” I said, pointing to the upper floor of the former Border’s Books.
“Right,” he said. “We’re just waiting on Com Ed. They’re holding up the show.” As an MRI machine was wheeled in through the back of the building, Heim explained how the crews needed power shut down so they could finish decentralizing power throughout the entire building. The first floor of the parcel has potential for one or two businesses, he says, and he hopes to see a restaurant in at least one of them.
He also mentioned how Fifth Third Bank is not owned by Church St. Plaza LLC (it was sold off), and that the bank plans to consolidate its freestanding ATM dispenser into the existing bank; right now, Francesca’s Collections lies between the ATM dispenser and its bank.
“So, I’m trying to figure out what we can do with that [little piece of property],” he said, referring to the soon-to-be vacant ATM spot.
I offered an idea. “Why not sell pizza by the slice?” I asked. “Call it, 'A Little Slice of Evanston.'"
“But where are you gonna bake the pizza?” he asked.
“Ah, good point,” I said, realizing how tiny the space is. Not even room for an oven.
“I thought of Garrett’s Popcorn, but then you’d have to pop the popcorn offsite and then shop it in,” Heim said.
“What if you let local schools use it on a rotating basis?” I offered. “Schools are always fundraising for a cause. My kids’ school is raising funds for a new library. Once a month, a school can sign up to use the space and sell whatever they want to raise money for their community. They’d be in charge of setup and takedown. You’d make the community very happy.”
He looked intrigued…but back to empty storefronts.
Heim said the former 38 Degrees storefront at 940 Church St. is now occupied by Peeled [juice and smoothie bar, raw foods, artisan gelato, vegan] – and it’s set to open in May.
The conversation felt decidedly positive, except for one issue: Panhandlers.
“They’re awful,” Heim said. “It’s aggressive panhandling, and the city doesn’t do enough about it. Police don’t even write people up because nothing happens. And I’ll tell you: a lot of these panhandlers claim they’re homeless, and they’re not.” According to Heim, panhandlers love the area because of the Northwestern University student population. “Every year, it’s a fresh crop of unsuspecting new students who haven’t figured it out yet,” he says. “You can easily get hit five times by different panhandlers walking from [the corner of Church and Maple] to the parking garage.”
“What can the city do?” I ask him.
Again, Heim just smiles, and I fully understand. He’s busy enough managing all these parcels, and that’s someone else’s job.
“Well, thank you so much for your time,” I said, shaking his gloved hand.
“You’re welcome, Tinywolf,” he said. “I think I’ll just call you T.W.”
Who am I to argue with a Transformer of such power?