Taiwani Enterprises plans to build a “modern learning center” at 1911-17 Church St. and hopes Y.O.U. will be the anchor tenant.     RoundTable photo

Residents and neighbors of the Fifth Ward who attended Alderman Delores Holmes’s monthly ward meeting heard a presentation from representatives of Taiwani Enterprises Inc. and Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.) about Y.O.U.’s potential relocation to 1911-17 Church St. For the most part, the project was welcomed as another way to enliven the Church/Dodge area.

An Evolving Project

Taiwani purchased the property several months ago with the idea of creating there “a modern learning center that will encourage local students to explore different creative outlets and activities to express themselves while improving their skills and talent,” according to a press release from Taiwani last November.

The project is still evolving, a Taiwani spokesperson told the RoundTable.  Northwestern University was originally planned as the anchor tenant. She said Northwestern “decided against becoming a tenant in this project” and added “We were thrilled to start working with Y.O.U. … We believe Y.O.U. will help us [fulfill our mission for the project] with all their good initiatives for the youth of Evanston … and look forward to many other great options to create this educational and cultural location in Evanston.”

Mark Lavender and Mary Parthé of Taiwani told residents at the Fifth Ward meeting that the company owns “quite a few properties in Evanston.” Two of these are being rehabbed as bed-and-breakfast inns along the lakefront at Church Street.

“We look at properties from a preservation standpoint, and we look at properties where we can make a significant impact on the neighborhood,” said Ms. Parthé. “We thought this would be a positive way to impact the community – to build a youth hub,” she added.

“We have been trying to redevelop the Church/Dodge area since 2002,” said Ald. Holmes. “Since 2005 we have been working on different projects. Boocoo [on the northeast corner of Church Street and Dodge Avenue] was the first project we completed. We have a few businesses that come in, and they leave,” she added.

Boocoo closed late last year but two separate groups are trying to revive it, in spirit if not in name.

Mr. Lavender, Ms. Parthé and Y.O.U. Executive Director Seth Green all said they hoped that things would work out so that Y.O.U. would be the anchor tenant.

“Our focus is on out-of-school supports for all kids,” said Mr. Green. “Right now we are in 10 locations. We have summer learning, mentoring, therapy in selected cases and a 24/7 hotline. We work very closely with incredible partners such as Family Focus, the YWCA and Kevin Brown [the City’s youth advocate].”

Y.O.U.’s present location, 1027 Sherman Ave., is dilapidated and insufficient for their needs, Mr. Green said. The new space, if things worked out with the neighbors and Taiwani, would have a staff room, several rooms for experiential learning and space for the needs of the street outreach workers. The experiential learning spaces would include a STEM  lab and a demonstration cooking space, he said.

A Youth-Centered Hub

“We want this to be a youth-centered hub. … We’re excited about … bringing other youth- services agencies in. We’re always thinking about the kids,” Mr. Green said.

 “We will not use the space all the time, but we want to see the space used all the time. We are very excited, and we are very interested to have your input,” Mr. Green told the nearly 40 people at the meeting.

Muffy McAuley, who with her husband owns several properties in the Fifth Ward, asked if they were looking for commercial tenants.

Mr. Green said they are not. Ald. Holmes said, “If [the center] is only going be service-oriented, we need to [be clear] and get [misconceptions] out of the way.”

Ms. McAuley suggested that, since Taiwani is not looking for commercial tenants, they might look for corporate sponsors, such as Abbott Laboratories, to help with the STEM lab. “I’d love to see real jobs come out of that center,” she said.

Carolyn Murray said, “I know you said the focus is on youth. Oakton Community College is the link college for Evanston residents.” She suggested that either Oakton or Northwestern University rent space there, particularly in light of the transportation difficulties may Evanston youth face in trying to get to Oakton’s Skokie or DesPlaines campuses. She added, “Our tax money goes to Oakton. We have no problem putting our power to pressure Oakton to put a satellite here.”

“That seems like good synergy,” said Ms. Parthé.

Asked about a timeline and the look of the completed building, Mr. Lavender said the project is still in the planning stage, but expect that the building will be about 25,000 square feet. The City’s zoning code limits the building height to three stories, he said, adding, “We’re looking at parking. It’s going to be an issue.”

Mr. Lavender said Taiwani plans to demolish the existing building and make the site more presentable until construction begins. “We have been waiting since November for NICOR to remove the gas lines. Our goal was to have those buildings down [by now], so now are goal is to sod the area so it becomes green space.”

Once they have secured an anchor tenant, they will construct a building tailored for the most part to that tenant’s needs.  It could take eight to 10 months for the design and about 12 months “for enclosure of the building. We anticipate the building to be done early in 2016 and have tenants in place three to four months after that.

Betty Esther said that since the for-profit arm of Taiwani will construct the building, she wanted assurance that the building would remain on the tax rolls. Mr. Green said Y.O.U. plans to see if the part of the building they would lease could be removed from the tax rolls. If that is the case, then the property tax on the building would be levied only for the non-Y.O.U. part. He also added that Y.O.U. plans to sell its Sherman Avenue property, thus returning it to the tax rolls. He said he believed that, even if Y.O.U. is able to obtain the tax exemption for its new lease, there would be a positive addition to Evanston’s tax rolls.

Ms. Esther also asked if Taiwani was familiar with the West Side Plan, adopted several years ago by the City, and the Neighborhood Plan. The Neighborhood Plan was created by some residents opposed to the West Side Plan. It was not adopted by the City. She said the West Side plan called for the property to be used for retail/residential.

“They know about the West Side Plan,” Ald. Holmes said. “But this is private property. One has to have control of the property in order to build.”

“If it’s not coming in as retail on the bottom and residential on top, are you going to the zoning committee?” Ms. Esther asked.

“It’s consistent with zoning,” said Ald. Holmes. The area is zoned B1. Ms. McAuley added, “Office space on the bottom is [compliant] with B1 zoning.

“What kind of profit do you foresee at Church and Dodge?” Madelyn Ducre asked.

“We’re not going to disclose specific numbers,” said Ms. Parthé.  “You can see what we bought it for. You can see what kind of building we’re building.”

Dangerous Neighborhood?

“I’m quite sure you heard that the Church/Dodge area is not safe,” said Ms. Esther. “So why would you want to come in there?”

“We’re trying to make a change,” said Ms. Parthé. 

Several residents, including Ald. Holmes, protested Ms. Esther’s remark. “Read the crime stats,” Ald. Holmes said.

Dr. Dorothy Williams, executive director of Family Focus, said, “They said, ‘Family Focus is in a dangerous neighborhood.’” She said Family Focus and Y.O.U. “have had a good 15-year relationship. This program is going to enhance what we do at Family Focus.”

Chatter about crime continued at the meeting as representatives of Y.O.U. made their exit; and a representative of the Evanston Police Department” edged to the front of the room and said, “This is an excellent lead-in,” and began his monthly crime report.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...