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About 75 persons who surely were taping President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 25 gathered for a neighborhood meeting about safety, City policies and initiatives, but most of all about the hollow-eyed giant nearby: Evanston Plaza at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue. Since March of last year the plaza, owned by Joseph Freed & Co., has been in receivership and managed by Foresite Management.

Len Richards, who manages the plaza for Foresite, told the neighbors that little progress has been made in attracting a second anchor tenant for the plaza. While the Dominick’s Food Store has been a mainstay since Freed redeveloped the plaza less than a decade ago, A.J. Wright, the other big-box store, will close permanently in March. The 38,000-square-foot vacancy may add to the deserted look of the plaza, although several small businesses remain, including Dance Center Evanston, the Veterans Administration, a Radio Shack, a dry cleaner, a dentist, an optician, a nail salon, some fast-food chain stores and two independent restaurants – Panino’s and Kingston Grill.

Mr. Richards said, “We were courting a large renter that withdrew when TJX [owner of A.F. Wright] decided to close the store. … We’ve talked to some [businesses that provide] medical [services], and [the] retail [market] seems to be picking up.” He added that he receives about eight calls a month from prospective tenants for the plaza, most of them big box discount stores. He does not solicit discount stores, he said at the Jan. 25 meeting; he markets the plaza to everyone, but it is the discount stores that seem most interested in the A.J. Wright space. “We had a couple of gyms interested, but the lease is specific [about excludimg such types of tenants],” he said. He said he thought the best prospects for the space were a sporting goods store, a shoe store, an apparel store or a “lifestyle” store. “We’re primarily looking toward national discount brands.”

Many of the neighbors at the meeting appeared to be less interested in big box and discount stores than in stores they believe they would patronize or that would fit in with the character of the neighborhood.

“The word ‘discount’ raises hackles,” said one resident. “Is that the economy or the neighborhood?”

Mr. Richards said the economy was in part to blame, because vacancies in downtown Evanston are competing with vacancies at Dempster/Dodge.

“Let’s reinvent this whole place,” said another. “We want to make sure the City is taking a more proactive role – taking a thoughtful look at what the community needs.”

Lori Keenan said she is part of a group [the Evanston Library Friends] working to save libraries in Evanston. “If we could bring in a library, it’s an economic engine. They say that every dollar invested in a library brings $8 to the community. Maybe Foresite would donate space?”

Mr. Richards said Foresite would not be able to do so.

But the giant in the mall has a far-reaching grasp.

“The Dominick’s lease restricts the ability to do certain kinds of business,” Mr. Richards said. “Dominick’s is very concerned about parking,” so they negotiated the terms of their lease – as do many anchor tenants – to prohibit uses that would have patrons parking for an hour or more, such as athletic clubs, theaters, large restaurants or a bowling alley.

“Does Dominick’s have the long-term ability to squash future vibrancy?” asked Vickie Jacobson. “I think we need a mix of uses so that the plaza will be less vulnerable to economic ups and downs.”

The shopping plaza may be closed, said Nancy Radzevich of the City’s Department of Community and Economic Development, but it is not forsaken. “We have been told that Evanston Plaza is one of our big priorities,” she said. “We recognize what it has going for it, but the mall is tired. … We have a City staff member delving into the financial implications of what we can do. We need to take a more aggressive look at Dempster/Dodge and find out what’s going on there. … It’s time for the City to be a more proactive partner.”

The City has a sales-tax sharing agreement with Freed, under which a certain percentage of sales-tax revenues generated at Evanston Plaza are remitted to Freed to help offset costs of environmental remediation he incurred when developing the plaza.

Mr. Richards said Foresite’s receivership should be completed within three to six months. “Either Freed will pay off the loan and get out of foreclosure or it will remain in foreclosure and the property will be put up for sale,” he added.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, who chaired the meeting along with neighborhood leader Adam Finlayson, said, “All of us are pulling for the plaza to be the best it can be.”

Reportedly, among those attending the meeting was a local business owner interested in opening a bowling alley in the shopping plaza. Neighborhood leader Dickelle Fonda, who helped organize the meeting, said later, “There will be immediate follow-up meetings with [Mr. Richards], and hopefully with corporate staff from Dominick’s, to discuss lease amendments.

“There is a large and dynamic business-owners group now forming, who will continue these discussions with the plaza and the City. It is time for all of us working together to find creative solutions for improvements at this plaza.”

Neighborhood Crime Down

Beat Officer Reggie Napier of the Police Department’s problem-solving team keeps in touch with residents through neighborhood e-mail lists and other ways, reminding them to lock cars, homes and garages, for example, and providing follow-up information on burglaries and other crime. He told the some 75 residents at the Jan. 25 neighborhood meeting that crime in the neighborhood is down, consistent with lowered crime throughout the City.

“”There is a general overall lowering of most types of crime. The [number of] thefts from autos is [decreasing],”” Officer Napier said.

Possibly referring to the number of shootings last year, Police Chief Richard Eddington said at the Jan. 25 neighborhood meeting, “”There is a group of individuals responsible for the violent crime [in Evanston] far beyond the proportion of their numbers.””

Residents seemed concerned both about safety and about the sense that their neighborhood was unsafe. Three murders in the last few years remain unsolved. “”How do we keep people with these tendencies from causing future harm?”” one resident asked. “”

“”The only way that can be done is by us,”” said Bennett Johnson, “”but there is no commitment on the part of the community do so something.””

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste said, “”We have to stop the violence.””