With help from the two cities that border it, Howard Street east of Ridge Avenue is evolving from a crime-, drug- and gang-infested pariah into a member of the families of both Chicago and Evanston. The past 15 years have seen strong public and private development: on the Chicago-side, a shopping plaza with a Dominick’s food store, a Bally’s health club and several other shops, a new CTA station, a public school and a restaurant. In Evanston the most obvious improvement has been the construction of a 17-story high-rise apartment complex at 415 Howard St., the sole property in a tax-increment financing, or TIF district created in 2003.

Landlord vs. “Praise the Lord”

Nearly a year ago, the RoundTable reported on what was perceived by some City officials as a crisis of churches in the few blocks of Howard Street. Since February, the City has made three separate purchases of property along the Howard Street corridor east of Ridge Avenue and west of the CTA tracks, which it hopes to turn over to private developers who will attract small businesses, restaurants and even perhaps a theatre troupe: 623-27 1/2 Howard St.; 629-31 Howard St.; 727-29 Howard St.

Banners in the windows of the some of the properties invite prospective developers to imagine and then bring a restaurant, live theatre, a wine bar or something similar to one or more of those storefronts. Alderman Ann Rainey, whose Eighth Ward runs the length of Howard Street and who has been urging the City to invest in its southern gateway, told the RoundTable she believes that jump-starting businesses in these few properties will foster economic development along the corridor there. “Once you do a few targeted locations, you don’t have to keep supporting [the whole area],” she said. She also said the window signs have stirred excitement in the neighborhood. “We’ve had calls asking when the brew pub will open,” she said. She or a City official, she said, tell the callers that the sign is just an idea to entice economic development there.

For its part, though, the City said it hopes its ownership will be short-lived. In response to several questions from the RoundTable about the recent investments in Howard Street, City officials said they hope new businesses will put down roots and not just occupy but eventually own the properties. According to information from the City’s Department of Community and Economic Development, “The City of Evanston is not interested in ownership but rather the acquisition of some of these properties for the purpose of developing a high-quality, destination-orientated spot for visitors and residents alike.” City officials say there is “a large number of people trying to break into the Chicago market” and they believe businesses will see Evanston, particularly Howard Street as more affordable.

The Show Is Likely To Go On

At present the alderman and the City appear to have their sights on bringing live theatre back to the Howard Street area. During the 1980s, the area was home to The Practical Theatre Company at Howard Street and Custer Avenue, founded and run by Northwestern University students, and Wisdom Bridge Theatre, in the 1500 block of Howard Street, on the Chicago side just east of the CTA station. Ald. Rainey told the RoundTable that at least two Chicago theatre companies with ties to Evanston have shown interest in the space.

 “A theatre … [company] wants … to own it and agreed in principle to let others lease performance space,” Ald. Rainey said. She added that a group of professionals, including Evanstonians Michael Vasilko, John Leineweber and Carl Bova, are volunteering their time to convert one of the spaces into a working theatre. “We have the whole plan for the theatre; need to get it into a construction plan,” she said. At present the cost is projected to be about $600,000, a significant decrease, she said, from the original $869,000.

Seed Money or Sowing Tares?

How, if at all, the City will recoup its monetary investment – purchase price and rehab costs –  in the properties along Howard Street appears to remain an open question. Much of the money to purchase the buildings came from City funds designated for economic development. Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons said,  “The properties that have already been purchased on Howard were paid through a combination of TIF and Economic Development Fund resources.  As noted in the approval of the purchase of these properties, the Howard Ridge TIF will repay the Economic Development Fund over the next several years through annual payments and/or through the sale proceeds when the property is returned to a private owner.”

The City appears to be contemplating about $900,000 for rehabbing the properties. According to information from Mr. Lyons: “The $900,000 that has been in current discussions in the Howard Ridge TIF is for the redevelopment/rehabilitation of three properties on Howard.” 

Ald. Rainey said that some businesses have indicated a willingness to purchase property at roughly the City’s purchase price; thus any build-out and other costs absorbed by the City would become the economic-development enticements.

At least one alderman does not appear to believe that purchasing these properties was a good use of economic development funds.  Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said he objects to the process rather than the projects. Council members are asked to weigh in on projects brought to them, but the availability of economic help from the City may not have been publicized. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We’ll pay for most of your good idea.’ It’s not appropriate not to open the opportunity to others,” Ald. Wilson said.

He also said he believes City policies should include some form of accountability or possibility of return on the City’s investments rather than offering funding or forgivable loans.  “There is a difference between supporting a business and funding it,” he said.

Ald. Rainey, however, appears to be pressing on. She says she anticipates a grand opening of a theatre on Howard Street with Evanston leaders and possibly some Practical Theatre alums such as Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in attendance. She and maybe others will roll out the red carpet.