Looking  toward downtown Evanston from the Sienna development recently completed by Focus Development. RoundTable photo

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Dennis Marino left the City of Evanston last month after 23 years, but says he will remain in this community that he has helped shape for the last two decades during his  employment with the City. He came to Evanston to work in economic development and left as the City’s manager of zoning and planning.

 “My wife and I were attracted to Evanston by the public schools and wanted to work in an interesting place. I had worked for not-for-profits in Chicago and I liked what I saw in progressive government in Oak Park and Evanston. Evanston had the diversity, the University, the community and a distinctive downtown. I was attracted by the City and I had the sense that one could work on projects where neighborhoods could be revitalized, the City could be revitalized and the downtown could be revitalized.”

Mr. Marino and a reporter walked around downtown Evanston, then drove to some neighborhoods to see where zoning and City planning had a hand in private development. As a City official, he played a role in retaining C.E. Niehoff, Evanston’s largest manufacturing company; in retaining the Autobarn’s business on Chicago Avenue; in helping residential and mixed-use developments start – and in some cases restart – in the downtown area, on Chicago avenue and on Central Street, as examples; and in securing an $18 million grant for the City to rehab vacant housing into affordable homes and condominiums. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was little activity in the downtown area west of the CTA and Metra tracks, Mr. Marino said. He pointed out the Optima Views residential tower, Century Theaters, the Maple Avenue public parking garage and the 909 Davis building that help make that area vibrant today. Farther east and south, Sherman Plaza and the public parking garage, Optima Towers with its signature orange balconies, Chandler Plaza and a nearby building – both exquisitely rehabbed by the Davis Street Land Company – enliven the traditional downtown area, he said.

“With their contemporary architecture, the Optima developments [Optima Views, Optima Towers and Optima Horizons],” said Mr. Marino, “improved the image of downtown Evanston. He praised former Assistant City Manager Judith Aiello for her role in the development of the downtown through the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) districts. 

Two of Evanston’s larger businesses, the Autobarn on Chicago Avenue and C.E. Niehoff on Lee Street at Grey Avenue, remained in Evanston because of the City’s economic development work. The City entered into a sales-tax-revenue-sharing agreement with Autobarn, allowing the company to keep all local sales-tax revenues up to a certain amount, and Autobarn expanded across Chicago Avenue. “The Autobarn is a huge retailer in terms of economic development sales tax revenues,” Mr. Marino said. “It was rewarding to work with the Economic Development Committee to keep them in Evanston.”

C.E. Niehoff needed additional space, and the City helped with several aspects, the most visible of which is the cul-de-sac on Lee Street that allows delivery trucks onto company property but keeps them out of the nearby residential area.

One of Mr. Marino’s favorite projects, he said, was getting a newsstand back on the corner of Main Street and Chicago Avenue. The City purchased the southwest corner lot from the CTA and, after a search, found Joe Angelastri, who operated a newsstand in Chicago and was willing to open a newsstand in Evanston. 

Development on the City’s West Side  has lagged, with the foreclosure, resale and lackluster tenanting of Evanston Plaza, located at Dempster Street at Dodge Avenue. Housing, though, is making a slim comeback, and Evanston is still committed to keeping some of its housing stock affordable to lower-income residents. Mr. Marino was instrumental in the City’s securing a federal grant of $18 million to rehab 100 dwelling units in areas destabilized by the wave of foreclosures during the Great Recession. Several of the units are now sold or rented, and a new development, Emerson Square, on Foster Street at Ashland Avenue, is being constructed. 

Mr. Marino discussed some of the economic development tools the City has provided to attract or retain businesses:  “Arts is an economic engine,” he said, but as in all developments a project should “play to your strengths and make sure of economic diversity.

“A planned development is a good tool – an opportunity at any level to be able to tweak a project, to make it stronger than already proposed – to [have the developer] give back to the community, to get some affordable housing or a contribution to the affordable housing fund, alley paving or street improvement, landscaping – the most important thing is that the project is being built. Nearly all if not all planned developments … have given positive benefits.

“The economic development team is making TIFs successful…school districts have been patient. The City has always been selective about TIFs – TIF is a good tool, been used well in Evanston – and prudently in the context of risks and how it is applied.”

Next Steps

Mr. Marino declined to comment on his next adventure. “Turning 60 is sort of a magical thing,” he told the RoundTable. “I plan to have a nice summer, haven’t decided what I’ll do next but will still be in Evanston… I’ve been part of a team of really good people – staff, City Council, businesses and residents – happy to have been lucky enough to be part of it.”

Mr. Marino said as he leaves the City he sees no major stumbling blocks ahead. “The City has always been in good shape. Its form of government is progressive. People are committed to making Evansotn a better place. The City has always had strong leadership.” He said that when he came to Evanston, “I sensed a passion for making the community better and making Evanston a special place, and I had the opportunity to work as a team with people from all walks of life

During the walk his gait was modest, his footprint impressive, and his shoes very large for his successor to fill.