West side of Chicago Avenue, south of Lee Street, where property owners envision some major changes.                                                                       RoundTable photo

Two prominent owners  of  businesses on Chicago Avenue have given the City early notice of a plan to redevelop their properties, previewing a change of direction for the street they maintain will be ultimately be a win for their businesses as well as surrounding neighborhoods.

Richard Fisher, owner of Autobarn Evanston, 1012 Chicago Ave., and Oscar Tatosian,  owner of Oscar Isberian Rugs, 1028 Chicago  Ave., appeared before the City’s Design and  Project Review (DAPR) Committee on March 13  to discuss  plans they are exploring for the redevelopment of  properties they own on the  west side of Chicago Avenue  between Greenleaf and  Lee Streets.

Mr. Fisher’s service department sits on the same part of the street as Mr. Tatosian’s longtime fine rugs store. The developers are exploring options together, including residential, but “what we wanted to do was try to get some guidance initially,” Mr. Fisher told the staff committee, “rather than try to stuff something down people’s throats they might not want.”

In his remarks, Mr. Fisher said the storage center served the business when built several years ago, “at a time when the dealership did not have enough real estate, enough storage and enough service capacity to do the business we had in the years 2013, 2014 and 2015.”

“We now find ourselves with overcapacity, where our business is smaller than the amount of physical plants we have,” he told officials.

He said the move, were it to take place, would mean the elimination of the service centers – “something [3rd Ward Alderman] Melissa Wynne will tell you is of concern to her neighbors.”

“Service is what makes noise and dirt and the unloading of trucks,” Mr. Fisher agreed. “So all that would remain for us ultimately would be three sales buildings – Volkswagen, Mazda and Nissan, and nothing on the west side of the street.”

He maintained the net result of such a move “would be much happier neighbors. We wouldn’t lose any of the businesses or jobs that we have in Evanston. We would just lose real estate overhead, and we actually would have the cross savings of having all of our parts and service operations centralized in an area where we and our neighbors would like it all to be, over at Howard and Kedzie” (at the Autobarn’s Tech Center behind the Target store, built several years ago.).

Mr. Tatosian told the Committee that Evanston has been home to the business since 1928, when his grandfather Oscar Isberian and his brother, Megerditch Isberian, built the store. “So it’s a great legacy,” he said.

“We inherited it, my brother and myself,” he told the committee. “However, when I drive down Chicago Avenue, I can’t say I’m really proud of the way our building looks.” He said a 1960s addition to the building makes it look “chopped up.” He said other parts of the street are not what he would like them to be either.
“So we’d like to collaborate and create a better looking store with better looking high ceilings, better customer experience,” he said, “because we’re selling design and beauty, and our store is not really functioning that way.”

Mr. Tatosian noted the family has a store in the River North area of Chicago. He said still to be decided is whether to make a new store as part of the redeveloped site on the 1000 block of Chicago Avenue or to build a new one farther south on Chicago Avenue, where the family also owns property.

“As third-generation business owners, we are planning for  the future of this business,” Mr. Tatosian said in a statement before the meeting.  “It is a change-or-die situation  and we need to improve the customer experience  on Chicago Avenue  and merchandising within  the store. We have generations of clients and the rugs we have sold are in thousands  of Evanston and North Shore homes. We want to continue the tradition established by my grandfather for future generations of our family business.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, in attendance at the meeting, thanked the business owners for coming forward and talking to the City first,  “because  as you all know development in Evanston has been described as a ‘blood sport’ and I don’t want to have that to happen to you.

“This is an unusual site, backing up on the embankment on a busy street, somewhat narrow, very, very long,” the alderman observed. “So it has lots of exciting potential to it, and it has perils that I’d like us to avoid from the very beginning. So I really appreciate you’re coming in and being  in a discussion with us, so we don’t end up having those clashes we have too often in Evanston—and that you are saved time and expense, and the community is saved emotional time and expense.”

The alderman has called a special town meeting on the issue to be held 7 p.m. April 4 at Autobarn Mazda of Evanston, 1015 Chicago Ave., hoping to gather feedback from community members.

At the DAPR meeting, officials presented the developer with a good overview of  the  zoning  and other requirements that would apply to a development at that site.

City Zoning Administrator Melissa Klotz noted the parcels are located in block that falls within two different zoning districts, C1 and C2. The C2 is the more restrictive of the two and would require rezoning if the plan was for residential, she said.  (Mr. Fisher indicated that rezoning would be sought in such a case.)

Staff members also pointed to other feature elements such as curb cuts and the wider sidewalks as streetscape improvements as part of the Trader Joe’s development, the need to provide adequate parking and compliance with the City’s green building ordinance and other standards that govern development.

Briefing the business owners on some of the allowances the Code provides, Ms. Klotz also advised, “We don’t want something that maxes every regulation we have and creates a big box.”

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.