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Book Review and Interview by Ellen Galland
The respected urban planner Robert Teska has practiced in Evanston for more than 45 years. In 1975 he founded the planning firm Teska Associates that recently redesigned Fountain Square. He served the City as Chair of the Business District Redevelopment Commission for several years, starting in 1980. That same year he also founded Design Evanston, a non-profit group of local architects, planners and designers which advocates for good design practices.
Mr. Teska recently published an online book, “Downtown Evanston Revitalized 2007-2018.” This is his second publication about Evanston revitalization. The first, “Downtown Evanston Revitalized, 1956-2006,” was published online in 2007.
As Evanston residents and elected officials continue to react to proposed changes in downtown Evanston, these books provide a clear sense of how Evanston’s downtown has changed over many decades.
History of Revitalization
Mr. Teska reminds the reader that the development of the Old Orchard Shopping Center (now Westfield Old Orchard) in 1956 spurred Evanston community and business leaders to consider how Evanston could continue to attract shoppers, diners, movie-goers and new businesses.
While Old Orchard continues to be a major competitor for Evanston’s downtown retail businesses, another major challenge has come along with the appeal of online shopping to increasing numbers of potential customers.
When Mr. Teska came to Evanston in 1961, he writes, Downtown Evanston “had charm.” Now, he says, it has less charm but more vitality. The experiences are different.
Back then it was a low-rise downtown, and it now is a high-rise downtown. However now, as then, it is compact and walkable. It was an upscale retail center then, with major department stores and specialty stores for, as examples, apparel, jewelry and furniture.
It had headquarters offices, such as Rotary International and Washington National Insurance Company. More office headquarters arrived in the 1970s, but several have now moved out to suburban office parks. Downtown’s two movie theaters, the Varsity and the Valencia, closed.
In his second book Mr. Teska takes his readers through downtown developments in the last 12 years that have responded to more recent economic and demographic trends and municipal priorities.
Evanston’s location near major train lines, Northwestern University and Lake Michigan has always made it unique and desirable, especially to residents who want to drive less. Evanston’s rental apartments and condominiums have always been attractive to seniors, and they have become increasingly desirable for young adults, and older “active adults” (a broad category, starting with 50- to 55- year-old adults, that is used for marketing purposes.)
Recent public art projects, bike friendly infrastructure and the redevelopment of Fountain Square have contributed to a lively downtown. In particular, Mr. Teska says, Fountain Square’s curbless, shared space, with its movable tables and chairs, has perked up that area and increased
the amount of gathering space there for public events.
The fountain beneath the Veterans’ War Memorial is also a reflecting pool where people can wade and play, similar to Millennium Park’s popular pool.
The fountain features pool lighting that change colors, depending on the event.
A continuing question is whether Evanston’s “urban core “ should get more and more dense so that the City’s property tax base and sales taxes will be enhanced.
In the last decade, almost a dozen new high rise buildings have already changed the skyline and density of the urban core. (The Chase Bank Building, built in 1968, is currently the tallest, at 277 feet).
Mr. Teska points out that the Evanston business community supports development and density downtown because more “residents, jobs and visitors mean more downtown business.”
The potential of increased density needs to be balanced against increased costs for City services, traffic and parking issues, and an adverse effect on nearby residential neighborhoods. But, he says, the type of downtown housing being built does not add children to the school system and does not generate as much additional daytime traffic as office and retail uses do.
Mr. Teska thinks that Evanston will not again become the destination shopping district it was until the 1960s, or the Headquarters City it was in the 1970s-1990s.
The demand for housing is now greater than the demand for office space. He points out that the expiration of two tax-increment financing (TIF) districts in the downtown means that there will no longer be as many funds available “to incentivize private investment or pay for public improvements.”
The recent Fountain Square redesign was paid for in part by the Washington National TIF District. TIF district legislation was enacted in the 1970s by the State of Illinois to make possible projects such as public parking garages and the Fountain Square redesign.
The City has found that parking meter and parking garage fees are useful generators of revenue. Recent changes to the parking meter system have challenged shoppers, and seniors in particular. Mr. Teska says, they present “a psychological issue for older residents.”
Having seen two periods of change in Downtown Evanston, Mr. Teska has some thoughts about what is coming next.
He believes that, among the directions that Evanston’s next revitalization stage will take, there will be a modest increase in retail and office space, with more smaller-scale retailers and services on ground floors, as well as the expansion of businesses that relate to Northwestern University activities.
Revitalization to him means more housing, pedestrian activity, increasing retail sales, more business activity and continued new construction. The proposed new Northlight Theatre building on Church Street will be welcomed by many.
A persistent question is whether the downtown residential developments should provide affordable housing so that more Evanston residents may live in the downtown area.
An upside to being a successful community is the fact that some residents can afford to pay more for housing. This becomes an obstacle to the creation of affordable housing downtown.
Mr. Teska says the focus should be on helping current residents with housing needs throughout the City (he prefers the term “housing insecurity.”)
The challenge is to determine the type, location and price of the affordable housing that should be provided and innovative ways of providing it. Mr. Teska says residents should keep in mind that what would be considered affordable downtown might not be considered affordable in other parts of the community.
As revitalization has made the City attractive to developers, it has created new planning challenges.
Currently the City is considering several developer proposals. Most are “planned developments” which require site development allowances and “public benefits” in order to build taller buildings which often have more dwelling units, less parking, different setbacks than the Zoning Code normally allows “by right.”
These proposals represent significant investment on the part of the developers. The proposals then require the major involvement of City staff, aldermen and residents as they are evaluated.
Often some of the criteria by which they are judged seem arbitrary or inconsistent to the parties involved.
While the 2009 Downtown Plan (adopted by the City Council, but never codified in the Zoning Code) is sometimes referred to as new developments are proposed, it is less and less useful, since economic and residential growth patterns have changed since 2009. A new and different decade faces us now, Mr. Teska says, than when the 2009 Plan was developed.
Mr. Teska’s timely book on downtown revitalization trends raises the question, as others already have, of whether the continued vitality of Downtown Evanston requires an updated, or new, Downtown Plan.
He believes the City needs to have a clear vision of how its downtown might change. And he thinks the time has come for the City to give greater attention to the downtown development potential west of the ‘L’ and Metra tracks. His own vision, with which he concludes his latest book, is that Downtown Evanston will maintain and enhance its “full-service urban-village character.”