Dance Center Evanston’s students come from all over Evanston and the North Shore and "love it." Many express the feeling that, with better marketing, other businesses could also attract loyal customers to this location.

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When it comes to marketing, perception counts for a lot. A recent meeting revealed differences in perception about Evanston Plaza and the neighborhood around it. Many residents who attended a community meeting on Dec. 9 about Evanston Plaza said they felt the shopping center owner, Joseph Freed & Co., considers their neighborhood an undesirable market and has not worked aggressively enough to attract the kinds of businesses they would patronize. They appeared to appreciate the neighborhood impact fund, to which Freed has made regular contributions for the neighbors to use for beautification and other beneficial projects to mitigate the impact of the shopping plaza on the neighborhood. Yet many said they resented being considered a “secondary or tertiary market” – a term they attributed to Freed – and felt that Freed does not respect or understand the neighborhood.

Of the few tenants who attended the meeting, two praised their dealings with Freed. One, who said she was leaving in March and closing the business, said she felt Freed had been unreasonable and unfair when she tried to renegotiate the terms of her lease.

And at least one resident said she felt the neighborhood was safe but the shopping plaza at night gave her concern.

At the outset of the meeting Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, in whose Second Ward the property lies, said the meeting was convened “to talk about the idea that this [area] may not be considered a desirable area and to impress upon [Dennis Harder, representing Freed] that there is a community here.”

Dickelle Fonda, one of the conveners of the meeting, said, “This is a vibrant, thriving community. I’m not sure that whoever is marketing the plaza understands it. We want to dispel whatever misunderstanding there is.” She added, “There are a lot of empty shops there.”

The Shopping Plaza

The 212,000-square-foot shopping plaza at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue is 66 percent leased and occupied, said Jane Thompson of Jane Thompson and Associates, speaking for the Freed Company.

Ms. Thompson said a representative from Freed told her on Dec. 21 that the taxes are paid and the plaza is not for sale.

City planner Dennis Marino said, “We’ve worked with this shopping plaza for years; it’s always been an opportunity that we wanted to develop. … Freed delivered the Dominick’s store, and, we know, has marketed the center consistently. The smaller spaces have trouble renting.” Freed has a sales-tax sharing agreement with the City to help offset the cost of the environmental remediation. And Freed contributes to a neighborhood impact fund.

Dennis Harder, a principal of the Freed Company who attended the Dec. 9 meeting with the neighbors, said, “I’ve been with the Freed Company for about 18 years and been with this from the beginning. The environmental remediation has been a challenge over the years because we did not remove everything, but paved over some of the problem areas.” Because of the paving over rather than the removal of the environmental problem, he said, no foundations can be dug in the parking lot.” He enumerated several of the problems he said Freed has had in attracting tenants. “First, there is the location and type of plaza; in addition, certain tenants have leasehold rights. … We have talked with all kinds of tenants, presenting them the shopping center.” He added, “There are businesses across the street that we don’t want to have in the shopping center.”

There are several fast food restaurants, a quick insurance company and a payday loan store across from the corner plaza.

Frank Warren, a resident who managed a camera store in Highland Park, said to Mr. Harder and to the residents, “You’re old and you have old ideas.” He suggested that Freed try to rent to businesses that would attract upscale youth. “None of us is going to buy anything at Citi Trends – a few African-Americans [youth], maybe. Downtown they’re selling jeans with holes in them for $80. It’s about capitalism.”

Perceptions

Jason Southerland, artistic director of Next Theatre Company, said Freed had approached Next and asked them to use space there for rehearsals. He said the cast and crew rehearse there but always drive, because “many of our people do not feel the area is safe, and they do not think it is accessible by public transportation.

Béa Rashid, who owns Dance Center Evanston, said she has students from all over Evanston and the North Shore, “and they love it. They love the parking, the accessibility.”

One young woman said she felt somewhat afraid walking near the shopping plaza at night because there are so few lights on. “It’s spooky,” she said.” Yet another resident said there are too many lights on along the Dodge Avenue side at night.

In a letter written to Mr. Harder after the meeting, Jennifer Allen-Goldstein said, “I find the characterization of the Plaza, and consequently the surrounding area, as “secondary” or “tertiary” offensive and inaccurate.  My husband has a Ph.D. and I have a J.D.  We are in our 30s and have two small children.  To some degree, I can understand your company’s misperception of the area due to the currency exchange, title loan, car insurance and fast food restaurants. But a familiarity with more than the businesses on Dempster would show that our particular neighborhood has diverse income, ethnic and racial groups that are not visible by driving down Dempster or Dodge.  A tour of our neighborhood would show you that there are not only multi-family homes and apartments but large single-family homes as well.”

Ms. Fonda also wrote to Mr. Harder: “It was clear that neighbors held concerns that … a misperception of this corner of Evanston and the community that surrounds it … may be held by those from Freed who market the plaza, as well as potential business interests who might become tenants if they had a more realistic view of the area.”

Moving Ahead

Mr. Marino said, “We’ve been trying to get the right kind of destination businesses. … The issue is, ‘What are the ideas for moving forward?’”

Margarita Matlis, a member of Organization Latina de Evanston (OLE) said the plaza does not have businesses to attract the growing Mexican population in Evanston. “You are leaking customers to Clark Street,” she said, adding, “Evanston Plaza is cold. Why not make a nice environment to bring in Hispanics? What about a cozy Mexican taqueria?”

Other suggestions from residents included an art gallery, a summer event, a sidewalk café, a game arcade, a community or youth drop-in center and a farmers’ market. One resident suggested that Freed arrange short-term leases of a few months to a year for local artists to use as studios.

Mr. Marino invited anyone with ideas about prospective tenants for the shopping plaza to contact him. Later he extended the invitation to RoundTable readers: “If any reader has contacts with businesses not in Evanston that would be attracted to Evanston, please contact me.” Contact Mr. Marino at dmarino@cityofevanston.org or 847-866-2928.