City sale nears for climbing gym. Photo from First Ascent

Evanston officials are moving closer to selling the City’s former recycling center to a developer for conversion to a climbing gym, but the alderman in the ward continues to hold deep reservations about the project.

At the May 13 meeting of City Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee, aldermen voted in favor of a staff recommendation to sell the City-owned property at 2222 Oakton St. to Clark Street Real Estate, LLC for $1.1 million.

On the Council floor, aldermen voted 7-2 to introduce the item, setting up a vote on the sale of the property in two weeks, with Aldermen Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, voting no.

 Ald. Rainey, in whose Eighth Ward the site is located, also spoke against the sale in committee discussion, expressing concern that the real estate developer buying the property had plans beyond the climbing facility.

“I don’t want  to see a strip mall or shopping center on  the periphery of James Park,”  she said.

In a memo to the committee, staff members Johanna Leonard, the City’s Community Development Director, and Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Division Manager, said that the negotiated price was based on an Oct. 30 appraisal of the site of  $870,000.

First Ascent Climbing & Fitness, the prospective purchaser,  is planning to erect  a climbing gym.

Under the proposal, Clark Street Real Estate would purchase the building and the adjacent parking area, securing a long-term lease with First Ascent to operate the climbing gym, staff said in a memo.

The City would retain a permanent easement to the driveway, enabling access to Oakton Street, officials said.

First Ascent’s plan calls for providing 20,000 square feet of climbing with 250 routes to climb, City staff said.  In addition,  First Ascent plans to provide “a fitness area with cardio equipment and functional strength equipment; up to 60 yoga/fitness classes weekly; at least one community event every week; partnerships with local restaurants and retailers to offer experiences unique to Evanston,” staff said.

City officials said First Ascent is also interested in holding after-school programs, focusing on fitness, agility and interaction.

The total project costs are $4.7 million, staff said. In addition to the $1.1 million acquisition cost, Clark Street estimates $2.75 million in building/infrastructure and renovation costs.

First Ascent estimates 2,000 members and several hundred visitors each day for the Evanston facility, which it plans to open in January 2021, staff said. “The team believes this site offers unique  and compelling synergies that  are hard to replicate in other business locations, specifically the amenities offered at James Park, Quad Indoor Sports and Dawes Elementary School,” Ms. Leonard and Mr. Zalmezak said in the memo.

 First Ascent currently has four facilities in Chicago with plans to open new gyms in Arlington Heights and Peoria by the end of the year, they said.

 Ald. Rainey had argued at a previous meeting that the City ought to be cautious on the issue, characterizing Clark Real Estate as “a very aggressive shopping center/commercial  developer who has hundreds of thousands of square  feet in its portfolio.”

She repeated those concerns at the May 13 meeting, maintaining that the City’s Animal Shelter, as well as Gordon Foods farther west on Oakton could be vulnerable if the climbing gym did not pan out and the Clark Street group expanded beyond their purchase.

In the meantime, the best argument for selling the property to be redeveloped into a climbing gym, is that “it’s going to be something we don’t have. That’s about all I can say about it,” said Ald. Rainey. “It’s not really going to be an alive place.”

At the February meeting, Andy Stein, a principal with Clark Street Real Estate, stressed the economic  benefits of the purchase, including  putting  the  property back on the tax rolls and  generating sales tax revenue.

Maintaining the firm had no other plans for the property beyond the climbing gym, Mr. Stein said the site can become a “greenfield  destination point, which will draw and create economic development  and support other retail and restaurants.”

But Ald. Rainey in her remarks did not necessarily see it that way. “I don’t see people getting out of that rock-climbing thing and going over to Peckish Pig or Found or those other places,” she said. “They’re pretty spent after that. They might be going over to McCormick [Boulevard], one of those places.”

More likely, “they’ll be pretty much in their cars … having something sent to their house.”

She contrasted the use with a proposal by Smylie Brothers, whose bid to expand their brewery into the former recycling center fell through.

Bob Seidenberg

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.