Evanston City Council members authorized staff on Jan. 14 to move forward on negotiations with a developer proposing to build a premier climbing complex at the site of the city’s former recycling center in James Park, at 2222 Oakton St.

At their regular meeting, aldermen voted to authorize officials to move forward on talks after rejecting an amendment by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

In prepared remarks, Ald. Rainey, in whose ward the property is located, argued that the City should be cautious in negotiations with the applicant, Clark Street Real Estate, which she characterized “not a climbing gym but rather a developer with “a very aggressive shopping center/commercial developer who has hundreds of thousands of square feet in its portfolio.”

She argued that sale of the property to the developer could lead to further expansion, affecting the City’s animal shelter and Community Gardens as well as the Gordon Foods Service property , all within close proximity.

She also expressed concern about the parking lot serving the recycling building area, saying it should be a public pay station, available to all for use.

“The offer of one million dollars for this future economic bonanza should not dazzle the Evanston City Council.

“The property should not be sold,” declared the alderman. “The entire east side and south side of the property is framed by the largest park in the City of Evanston. We should be extremely careful with this property.”

Rather than an outright sale, “we should negotiate a lease-to-own, at the very least,” she said.

Ald. Rainey said she could support negotiations going forward on a three year lease-to-own basis with no change in the current zoning.

The zoning is for industrial and designated indoor recreation uses, such as a climbing complex, subject to special-use scrutiny.

Other aldermen had trouble supporting those terms, though, or wondered whether it would be best if the City addressed Ald. Rainey’s issues as part of the negotiations.

Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said his “initial inclination was to think if I’m investing in property a three-year lease doesn’t guarantee me my capital investment.

“So why in the world would anybody do that?” he asked.

 Staff noted that lease-to-own arrangements have been used with success – most prominently in the Eighth Ward, in the revitalization of Howard Street with businesses like Peckish Pig.

Ald. Wilson said that the arrangement could also backfire in this case. “That might be a better deal for them than it is for us,” he maintained, giving the developer the opportunity to get out of the deal after three years.

“Then we take over a climbing gym,” he said, drawing a comparison with Harley Clarke.

At the meeting, Andy Stein, a principal with Clark Street Real Estate, stressed the economic benefits of a purchase – putting the property back on the tax rolls, and also producing sales tax. 

The other benefit – and benefit to the community as a whole, he said, “is there is no world-class climbing gym anywhere like this in Evanston, nor in the northern suburbs.”

Clark Street plans call for the purchase of the building and land currently serving as parking, then entering into a long term lease with First Ascent, the company which would operate the climbing gym.

The redeveloped facility is to include 20,000 square feet of climbing with 250 routes to climb; a fitness area with cardio equipment and functional strength equipment; up to 60 yoga/fitness classes weekly, the developer said in the proposal.

The site will become a “greenfield destination point, which will draw and create economic development and support other retail and restaurants “in the area, Mr. Stein said.

While acknowledging the creativity of Ald. Rainey’s proposal, Mr. Stein said a lease- to-own arrangement would not be very favorable for the company in the capital markets.

“Given the amount of capital invested that we’re putting into the project, it is just not financeable,” he told aldermen.

As for motive, “There is nothing more than we want to do this development,” he said.

“There are no tricks up our sleeves,” he stressed. “I think this could be a huge benefit both economically and quantitatively to the city of Evanston.”

Ald. Rainey still called for a vote on her amendment, incorporating into negotiations a three year lease-to-own agreement rather than sale.

Arguing against the amendment, Ald. Wilson said Council members should “leave it as it is.”

“The City Manager has the authority to negotiate, including that [Ald. Rainey’s] possibility,” he said, “but to make a change. … It’s a backhand way to kill the deal.”  

Ald. Rainey maintained that was not her focus. 

“We are now selling out a public building which sits on the edge of a park to a developer,” she told Council members. “It’s something I don’t believe we’ve done before.

“No wonder how wonderful he [the developer] seems to be, he is an aggressive developer,” she said, “and I do not believe he’s going to stop at this building and I don’t think this the place for a shopping area. This is a park.

“We had people complaining about Smylie Brothers,” [which had previously eyed the space for expansion of its brewing operation] she noted. “I’m just really sad we’re going to do this to this park.”

Council members voted 6-3 against the amendment, with Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, and Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, joining Ald. Rainey in support.

Aldermen then voted in support of the main proposal, authorizing the City Manager to move forward on negotiations.

Before the vote, Aldermen Fiske and Eleanor Revelle 7th Ward though, expressed sympathy with Ald. Rainey’s position and indicated they would be watching the result of the negotiations as well as a move to change zoning on the site.

“I am concerned what happens to public land after it is developed,” Ald. Fiske said, citing the status of the library parking lot in the First Ward.

“I would defer to the alderman because I think she has put in an incredible amount of time thinking about what’s best not only for that area but the future of it.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.