Maria Von Medvey’s Apple the Second clothing shop on Howard Street is becoming a destination for the fashion-conscious.

In the past decade, the City has put considerable muscle into its commitment to improve the commercial aspect of Howard Street. The Evanston side of the street is bookended by tax-increment financing (TIF) districts: the Howard-Hartrey TIF on the west and the Howard-Ridge TIF on the east.

Businesses and some vacant buildings dominate the street, with pockets of residential areas: single-family homes and small apartment buildings on either side west of Dodge Avenue. On the east, near the CTA tracks, is the new 17-story apartment building at 415 Howard St.

Big-box stores are thriving in the Howard-Hartrey TIF, dubbed “Evanston’s downtown” several years ago because of the sales tax generated by the big box stores there: Jewel, Target, Best Buy and Office Max. Going east, one finds bustling areas at Asbury/Western and at Ridge, where, City officials say, Hecky’s BBQ has made preliminary application to open a restaurant in the former Dairy Queen store nearby.

City Efforts From Ridge to the CTA

Concentrating on the section of Howard Street between Ridge Avenue and the CTA tracks, the City has turned a vacated storefront into a police outpost and installed security cameras, helped defray the cost of façade improvement for at least one business and fostered the creation of the Howard Street Business Association. It has also purchased property outright, imposed zoning restrictions and even taken landlords – one absentee landlord in particular – to court for property standards violations.

Creating the TIF in that area was one of the City’s most dramatic actions to jump-start economic development there. The apartment complex now called 415 is the mainstay of the Howard-Ridge TIF district. Built in 2007, it has changed hands several times, and new owners Crossbeam and Concierge have upgraded the lobby, the halls and the appliances. City officials said recently that the building is 91 percent rented. The company also donated $9,000 to the Howard Street Business Association, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “to spend how the members wished to spend it.”

Another effort, which became controversial, was an attempt to limit the number of storefront churches in business districts, particularly in that area, by requiring that new churches within a business district obtain a special-use zoning permit. The measure was approved by City Council in December of last year in diluted form.

Ald. Rainey, the southern boundary of whose Eighth Ward is Howard Street, said the number of storefront churches there – seven on one block alone – is so great as to limit economic development there. Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes, as well as developers John Leineweber and Muffy McAuley said the number of churches in the Ashland/Dewey/Simpson area posed a similar problem. A coalition of ministers objected to that, and the Council limited the special-use requirement to only a few business districts within the City, including the Howard-Ridge TIF.

Alderman Rainey is a presence on Howard Street. She was the driving force behind the creation of the police outpost, said Maria Von Medvey, owner of Apple the Second, a high-end clothing store that is a Howard Street destination. Ms. Von Medvey told the RoundTable she felt that until recently the bulk of City help came from Ald. Rainey. “This area of town has been forgotten over the years. Ann [Rainey] has been trying so hard, so I feel support from her. She helped by getting new trash baskets because there was garbage flying around. … She also brought attention to the sidewalks, which were sinking. Some people almost broke a leg coming into my store.” She said she thinks that now, “City authorities are finally feeling some interest in recovering this part of town.

The City is in the process of purchasing two buildings in the area. Although some City officials have hinted of their excitement about the future of these buildings, no one is giving out specific information.

East Howard Street Business:
Some Things Old, Some Renewed

Although there are a number of tired-looking storefront churches and businesses between Ridge Avenue and the CTA tracks, Howard Street, say somewho work there, is coming into its own.

Layers of deterioration have been sandblasted away on the limestone and terra cotta building at 301-21 Howard St., where J-Bee’s urban clothing store and an Athlete’s Foot shoe store share an entrance. A block west is the new 415 apartment building.

The Marathon gas station near Chicago Avenue, a somewhat troubled spot last year, has reduced calls to police by reducing its hours, police say.

Almost next door, at the corner of Clyde Avenue, the Veterans Center remains open, though many of the services were ed last year to Evanston Plaza at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue.

Going west, up the slight incline of street and sidewalk that leads to Ridge, one finds other businesses firmly rooted on Howard Street. North Suburban Auto Supply has been on the corner of Howard Street and Custer Avenue for more than 40 years. Its new façade was funded in part by the City last year.

Complementing Ms. Von Medvey’s fashionable boutique, Mayfair Beauty (whose owners changed its name to Salon Beauty Supply), sells cosmetics and other beauty supplies.

The elephant in the room is Universal Realty, the absentee landlord that owns a significant number of properties in the area, Ald. Rainey said. City officials told the RoundTable that taking Universal to court for property-standards violations has sometimes been difficult. The 301 Howard building, with its gleaming new exterior, is an example of a successful outcome from prosecution of a landlord for such violations.

The Future of Howard Street

While there are some firmly rooted businesses there, more effort is needed to make the Howard/Ridge area a destination shopping area.

Ald. Rainey said, “People [shop at] Apple the Second and use the animal hospital. We need a jewelry store … Maybe we could get a restaurant or two. … We’ve gotten enough [accomplished] on Howard Street that people are paying attention.” She added that she is “hoping that we have more businesses and fewer churches.”

Ms. Von Medvey told the RoundTable she would like to see “shoe stores, restaurants and gift shops” come to the area. “People would like to have a place to sit down and have a slice of cake and a cup of coffee.”

Larry Kaufman, owner of North Suburban Auto Supply Company, said something similar at a meeting in December: “Howard Street still needs a lot of work. We need parking on Howard Street; we need a restaurant on Howard Street.” In particular, he noted, “Apple the Second is a nice store.”

He also said he felt there are “too many vacancies and too many storefront churches. … Howard Street has a long way to go, but I think in the next five years you’re going to see a lot of improvement.” And Ms. Von Medvey appeared to agree when she said, “Howard Street is a wonderful street. It is a wide street. It has a nice appearance, and it is close to the lake.”

Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover, who took part in a City-sponsored tour of the east end of Howard Street, said, “We want everyone to feel as if Howard Street is their business. Imagine if Howard Street had the strength of the Main, Dempster or Central Street business districts.”

Police Chief Says Howard Street Is Safer

Gone, apparently, are the days when Howard Street was a problematic area for pedestrians, business patrons and would-be visitors. “”People hang out on Howard Street but the crime rate is better,”” Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey told the RoundTable.

Police Chief Richard Eddington said, “”My perception is that [the crime situation] is better. … One issue I know bothers [Ald. Rainey] is when Howard Street is written off as a ‘bad place’ – which is not anecdotally supported and not statistically supported.”” Problems in the Howard Street area, said Chief Eddington, “”are not different from problems in other neighborhoods, and we have the police resources to address them.””

Neighborhood groups and the Chicago Police Department have also helped keep a lid on crime in the area, he said. “”The Brummel Park Neighbors are the poster children for neighborhood watch groups. Their walking about on Halloween and other neighborhood activities have had a long-term positive effect there.””

The long trend of cooperation between the Evanston and Chicago police departments continues, Chief Eddington said. Just across the Evanston border, on the other side of the street, Chicago’s 24th District has collaborated with Evanston police on curfew sweeps and other joint efforts, he added. “”We have a very positive relationship with Commander Wick [of the 24th District] and his crew.””

Evanston Police Officer Bonifacio Maldonado is the beat cop along Howard Street. One of the first things he did there, he told the RoundTable, was to create a “”beat profile”” by walking the area, meeting the business owners and managers. This led to the establishment of the Howard Street Business Association, he said. Those businesspeople are “”well-versed in what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. … What I’ve noticed is the impetus on Howard Street to make it look more appealing. The north side is looking significantly better.””

Officer Maldonado credits the cooperation among the business-owners.

Known as “”Bono,”” on the street, Officer Bonifacio works with neighborhood groups, business owners and the HSBA. “”The Brummel Park Neighbors and other groups, with their zero-tolerance stance, have been very pivotal [in changing the tenor of Howard Street]. … We can often address an issue before it becomes larger,”” he said. As an example, said Officer Maldonado, “”We worked with the owners of the Marathon station at 555 Howard St. The number of calls to the police about antisocial and criminal activity there has been reduced since City Council voted to limit the hours of operation.””

Larry Kaufman of North Suburban Auto Supply, which has been on Howard Street since the early 1960s, said at a recent meeting, “”The crime rate is getting a lot better. This past summer was not as violent.”” Like the police chief, Mr. Kaufman praised civic leaders for their efforts, in particular Michelle Hayes and the Brummel Park Neighbors. 

“”All [these efforts] help create a sense of unity among the neighbors, the business owners and the police department. … These are the reasons that Howard Street has risen up and is being known as a place to be,”” said Officer Maldonado. He adds, though, that work has to continue “”There’s always room for improvement.””