Y.O.U. is one of several Evanston organizations with which Northlight Theatre partners for youth education and enrichment. The theater company, which began in Evanston in 1974, hopes to return to its roots. Photo from Northlight Theatre.

Community members attending the Jan. 31 meeting of the City’s Economic Development Committee largely expressed opposition to a proposed performing arts center with its accompanying 37-story tower in downtown Evanston.

The committee nevertheless voted 4-3 to advance a non-binding resolution to City Council which, if approved by Council, would authorize City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and other City Staff to investigate a possible financing mechanism and parking needs for a performing arts center, which, officials emphasized, is still in its very early stages.

As proposed, Skokie-based Northlight Theatre would anchor the development, which would encompass the entire 1700 block of Sherman Avenue and also feature rental apartments, a boutique hotel, and rental spaces.

While numerous speakers during public comment expressed some support about the prospect of Northlight’s returning to Evanston, all but a few expressed reservations about the project’s footprint, which could displace several downtown businesses. Several speakers also spoke against the resolution itself, which they feared opened the possibility of creating a performing arts commission with taxing authority and eminent domain powers. 

In his remarks, Mr. Bobkiewicz said the resolution, widely circulated the day before, was only an authorization to investigate possibilities for financing a potential performing arts center, not a solid, formulated proposal.

“It is the role of the City Council, this committee, and your staff to be thoughtful about … changes and to those who want to invest in our community,” he said. “Northlight Theatre has come to the City with a proposal, along with Farpoint Development, to bring Northlight Theatre back to Evanston, where it rightfully belongs – as well as a development associated with that theater, to partly fund the ability for Northlight to return, as well as bring additional economic activity to our downtown.”

Adding that Northlight and Farpoint officials were aware of the magnitude of local concern, Mr. Bobkiewicz noted that the proposal was “not an approval for a project. It is not a submission of a planned development. But it is a proposal to you to look at two tools to help us further evaluate if it makes sense for us to further this project moving forward. First and foremost, how can Northlight Theater finance its return here? … In order for them to return here, they are going to need some assembly of assistance to make that happen. 

“The City Council has commissioned multiple studies on a downtown performing arts center, some dating back prior to Skokie’s moving forward with theirs,” he noted. 

The resolution did “two things only,” Mr. Bobkiewicz added, saying that it “gives permission to me to investigate … the options for using a similar financing mechanism that was used in Skokie for the creation of the facility there, to see if that could be used by Northlight. … It’s my role to come before you and the City Council to ask that permission. My sense is that it would make sense from a debt perspective, and my sense is that there is no interest among this committee or the City Council for that entity to have the ability to assess taxes and eminent domain. [It is about] the ability to help Northlight finance their portion of this project, through the debt that could be issued through a special purpose district.”

He further added that the resolution’s second function was to assess parking concerns surrounding the development. “If we’re going to have a further development in the downtown, it makes sense … to evaluate [if there should] be a public parking component, and, if so, how large should it be?”

Mr. Bobkiewicz noted that Northlight and Farpoint officials had not yet submitted a comprehensive plan to the City.

Some members of the Committee were not persuaded by Mr. Bobkiewicz’s assurances, however. Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, who voted against the measure, told Mr. Bobkiewicz, “I am puzzled by what we’re being asked to do.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz said that some details were intentionally vague and open-ended since the resolution was in effect an authorization to do research. 

“This is poor staff work,” Ald. Wynne replied. “…I’m not voting ‘Yes’ on this, because I don’t know what I’m voting for.”

“I’m really shocked that we’ve gotten to this point,” added Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he was “not comfortable with the large building that’s proposed” nor various other aspects of the resolution.

Other members of the committee said it would be short-sighted for them to discourage City Staff from investigating the financing possibilities, however. Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said that approving the investigation was not tantamount to “a rubber stamp” for the project, adding that, “We can all challenge ourselves a little bit more.”

Committee Chair Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “I think we ought to direct the City Manager to get more information.”

The committee passed two amendments to the original resolution. One removed language specifically tied to the Northlight project; the other removed language specifically mentioning that plans for a new governing body would be sent to the legislature and governor.

Resident Betty Ester asked why the City, after having eliminated the Township of Evanston governing body – an action, she said, that diminished services to residents – would want to form another that, she predicted, would cost residents even more.

“At what cost will we pay?” she asked.

Resident Clare Kelly said the plan “feels like a circuitous way to grease the tracks for another development that nobody wants.”

The majority of speakers decried the possible dislocation of businesses from the block. Darren Oberto, co-owner of Alley Gallery, said he was speaking on behalf of a number of owners of those establishments.

“I’m representing a place where sole-proprietor businesses bring diversity and character to our community,” he added, further explaining that he would welcome Northlight back to Evanston “but not at the expense of historic architecture and independent businesses.” 

“These businesses should be studied, not displaced,” said Mr. Oberto.

His co-owner, Ross Martens, presented the committee with a petition against the project signed by 2,500 persons, adding, “There’s a lot of passion behind what people feel here in Evanston … I hope you can think about supporting Northlight, but in a new space.”

First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, who is not on the committee but in whose ward the project would sit, also spoke against it.

“I was a small business owner in downtown Evanston, and I can tell you that the small business owners are the heart of this community,” said Ald. Fiske. “… People come to your businesses because they trust you. When there’s a downturn in the economy, it’s the small business owners that stay in business. They hold on with their fingernails. They don’t close up right away, and are [then] gone, like a corporation might be. They’re here for the long term.”

Ald. Fiske added, “We’re talking about 50 small businesses that can’t afford to be displaced. They can’t afford market-rate rentals. They will be gone.”

The proposal and resolution will be forwarded to the full City Council.

For Evanston resident Timothy Evans, Executive Director of Northlight Theatre, moving his company from Skokie to Evanston would not just be a personal homecoming of sorts; it would be a professional one as well.

Northlight is at the center of a proposal, which has yet to be formally introduced to City officials, that would erect a theater, as well as a 37-story tower composed of rental apartments and a boutique hotel, on the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue. The structure would house retail space as well.

In an interview with Evanston RoundTable, Mr. Evans noted that Northlight officials have long wanted to return to Evanston, where the company was founded in 1974. The organization has been based in Skokie for about 20 years.

“We were a longtime resident theater in this city, but we’re nationally known for world-class work and we work with world-class actors,” he said. “The idea of that being in the midst of downtown Evanston and drawing from all over is an essential part of why we’re wanting to move back.”

Mr. Evans said that logistical requirements largely necessitate a move as well.

“We don’t have a lot of control over our space that we’re in,” Mr. Evans explained. “We lease our space. We don’t run our own box office or … house management. So we can’t really control the audience experience and we’ve sort of outgrown the stage, and the ability to do the work that we aspire to do.”

Mr. Evans said that the company was first approached by City officials about five years ago about a possible return, though the company had been actively exploring the idea for many years already.

“They did an NEA study which was about creating an arts district for economic development, which would include a resident theater, dance hall and a music center. Those were things that everyone embraced and engaged, but there was no money for anything. Then Evanston Community Foundation did the evanstARTS Study, which supported all that and more in terms of expressing how the arts is important in every aspect of Evanston,” he recalled.

Mr. Evans noted the large number of creative personnel who reside in the City.

“There are writers, artists, painters – and it’s phenomenal how many of our acting and directing artists live in Evanston,” he said. “ … We know it’s a creative community, but we also know that it doesn’t have a world-class theater in it. The City came to us, and we started talking about how we could find our way back there. They see it as an economic engine and a driver of people coming to our plays and spending at restaurants, etc.”

While many residents would welcome the return, some in Evanston have been alarmed by the scope of the development that would be needed to make it financially viable. At a Jan. 31 Economic Development Committee meeting, a number of residents spoke out against the project’s potential for uprooting established businesses and its potential parking and financing requirements.

Mr. Evans acknowledged that the Alley Gallery and its surrounding area is “very unique – there’s no question. I think that, for a lot of people, is a very emotional piece of this. The developer – and this is beyond our control – is interested in bringing some of those folks into the building. The City has expressed interest in moving them; there are a lot of empty stores on that street, as we know. I understand the emotional aspect of the ‘alley’ piece of that, so we’re trying to address that.”