Whatever route Assistant City Manager Judith Aiello chooses to take for her trip home on this, her last day of official work for the City of Evanston, it will likely take her through Evanston’s past, present and future. With the exception of a 15-month fellowship at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ms. Aiello has worked for the City of Evanston since 1976. She began as an intern with the City’s Preservation Commission, where her first project was the rehabilitation of the 1817 Church St. building. She worked in the City’s Planning Department and in 1981 began what became her career in fostering development in Evanston. “Little did I know I’d stay here for umpteen years,” she said in a recent interview, adding “No two days have been alike.”
Ms. Aiello has seen and overseen the transformation of Evanston’s business and commercial scene, the metamorphosis of the Northwestern University Evanston Research Park into a retail and entertainment section and the beginning of revitalization along Howard Street east and the City’s west side.
Although now many fast-food and carry-out restaurants cater to the college crowd and the downtown workers, the City once prohibited fast-food restaurants. When Burger King wished to come to downtown Evanston, said Ms. Aiello, “They came in under the name ‘Chart House Restaurant.’ We agreed they could open but they could not bag the food to go.” Customers received their food and were shown a stack of paper bags to use if they wished to carry their food out of the restaurant.”
The 1980s were somewhat grim for development. “Chicago Avenue from South Boulevard to Keeney was pretty desolate; the Bell & Howell property was vacant; and Rustoleum was leaving. The downtown retail vacancy rate was up to 18.5 percent,” she said.
Today, should Ms. Aiello brave the traffic of the now-bustling downtown, she would likely get there on Maple Avenue, passing the recently transformed research park area where the Maple Avenue Garage, the Hilton Garden Inn and Border’s Books and Music, the Cinemark Theatres, and retail and restaurant space have replaced a grocery store, the Levy Center and a couple of surface parking lots. The high-rise Optima developments with ground-floor retail or service shops, the medium-rise office building that houses McDougall-Littell and Sherman Plaza with its massive garage are the new landmarks of downtown Evanston, and Ms. Aiello has been called its architect.
“She deserves all the credit,” said Martin Norkett, long-time member of the City’s Economic Development Committee. He praised Ms. Aiello at a meeting of the Joint Review Board (all the bodies that levy taxes on Evanstonians) late last year, at which Ms. Aiello received a standing ovation.
Ms. Aiello leaves before the vote on the fate of the proposed tower at 708 Church St. She notes, however, “We’ve had examples of design by committee that left us with less-than-wonderful projects: The Reserve (Ridge Avenue at Emerson Street), 800 Elgin Road and the Dubin Project on Chicago Avenue and near South Boulevard.”
Continuing her journey homeward, Ms. Aiello would pass South Point Plaza, a small shopping area in the 600 block of Chicago Avenue. She helped with the zoning changes that allowed it to be built. Further south, Howard Street reflects her efforts both to the east and to the west. The Bristol development, a rental high-rise between Ridge Avenue and the CTA tracks, is near completion.
At the City’s west end sits the Howard-Hartrey shopping plaza with the big box stores of Jewel, Office Max and Target. For its opening, says Ms. Aiello, “We had drama.” Bernard Stone, the alderman of the Chicago ward just across the street from the development, erected a wall along that area of Howard Street to shield his constituents from the ravages and noise of the new shopping center.
“Alderman Stone had a press conference; Mayor Morton had a press conference. We had made a commitment to Dayton Hudson [then parent company of Target] that there would be access to the shopping center, so we went to court.” The wall, she said, “came down within four days of the opening of Howard-Hartrey.”
We need to find a way to listen and find that we have more in common.” –Judith Aiello
A quick detour back to the north would see a stop at the Church/Dodge intersection. The City Council recently created a tax-increment financing, or TIF, district along Dodge Avenue and adopted a strategic plan for that area. Like Howard Street, the West Side is important to Evanston, says Ms. Aiello, and they need resources. Ms. Aiello could complete the circular tour of Evanston by traveling north to Central Street and surveying the corridor from Crawford Avenue on the west to Ryan Field on the east, another area for which the City recently adopted a plan for growth and development.
Even though Ms. Aiello is leaving the employ of the City of Evanston, she says she would like to continue to be a part of the growth and development here. “I hope to do some volunteer work on the west side with a couple of Evanston groups,” she told a reporter recently.
Ms. Aiello had nothing but praise for the many mayors, City Councils and City staff members with whom she worked during her three decades in Evanston. “I learned a lot from them. They took a lot of risks.” She adds, “I think what the citizens of Evanston don’t realize is that people who work here love the City of Evanston. It’s not a job – it really is a passion for the City. You know how good it can be because it’s such a microcosm.”
She does, however, have some advice for the citizens and for the present City Council. “There’s meanness [now] in the Council and the [community]. A person can’t disagree without being personally attacked. There is no sense that reasonable people can disagree. We need to find a way to listen and find that we have more in common.”
Noting that previous City Councils took risks, she said, “We have to get back to that. This Council tends to close ranks and settle, and we should never settle.”