City sale nears for climbing wall. Photo from First Ascent

Evanston’s one-time recycling center will find new life as a premier climbing gym under a move that was described by the alderman in the area as a “big win-win” for the developer but a “big lose-lose” in terms of the revenue returned.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, made her remarks prior to the City Council’s 6-3 vote in favor of the City’s entering into a real estate contract for the  sale of its property at 2222 Oakton St. to Clark Real Estate, the developer, for $1.1 million.

Clark Real Estate plans call for leasing the property to First Ascent Climbing & Fitness and for that company to convert the recycling center into a climbing gym.

First Ascent, with four facilities in the Chicago area, is proposing to provide 20,000 square feet of climbing with 250 routes to climb, once the facility is converted.

In previous discussions and again at the June 10 City Council meeting, Ald. Rainey, in whose Eighth Ward the site is located, raised concerns about the sale, pointing to Clark Real Estate’s status as a major developer and the chance of other uses going in at the site, at the edge of Evanston’s biggest park, should the climbing gym fail.

At the June 10 meeting, Ald. Rainey spoke about the financial side of the deal. If the property were to sell to Clark Street Real Estate, the property taxes generated – an estimated $16,000 to the City – would fall far short of the cost to the City for warehouse space to house the equipment and materials now stored at the site.

With a climbing gym at that site, “you get little, if any, sales tax, no liquor tax, no tax on rent, no membership tax, no birthday party tax, virtually no additional revenue other than the property tax of $16,000 a year,” Ald. Rainey said.

Taking into account the cost the City would be paying for replacement storage facilities, she estimated a $149,000 annual loss.

Her objection was not to the climbing gym, she insisted. “This is a business issue … that makes no sense whatsoever. We sell this property – it’s a lose-lose completely right off the bat for the City of Evanston and it’s a big win-win for Clark Street Real Estate.”

In support of moving ahead, Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, noted the purchase money the City would receive. He said that the property has been used for storage for “as long as I can remember so it’s not anything new” about the need to relocate the seasonal equipment. The City has “gone through multiple processes …so my hope and expectation is that we will follow through.”

 In further discussion, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, also expressed concern.

“I would love if we could find another place for the rock-climbing wall, because I do think it adds something to our community,” she said. “But I don’t feel this is the space right now.”

 Speaking later, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz acknowledged the City would have to find funds for storage “in a budget that doesn’t have a lot of money.”

But he said the decision to sell was ultimately a policy decision for Council members – whether the active use of the property “is more important than storage.”

At the meeting, Jonathan Shepard, co-founder of First Ascent, stressed the impact the climbing business would bring.

“First Ascent acts as a community anchor,” he said. “We bring across our facilities in Chicago a thousand people a day and we project around 300 a day at Evanston.

“I know we don’t do food and liquor sales, but we do create a lot of hungry and thirsty people. An average customer climbs two or three times a week. They love to go out to local restaurants and breweries and enjoy the fare.”

Speaking about the economic benefits, Andy Stein, a principal at Clark Street Real Estate, noted that the $1.1 million purchase price Clark Real Estate is paying for the property is more than 20% above the City’s appraised value.

He said an estimated $124,000 in real estate and sales tax will be generated from the property. In addition, the project will bring the City more than $72,000 in permit and other fees.

“We have no ambitions other than to develop this property. The City owns the property on all three sides. We are really excited about the opportunity this can be for the City of Evanston.”

During citizen comment, several First Ascent members spoke of additional benefits.

“Climbing gyms are mentally stimulating environments with supportive communities behind them, which is vastly different than our traditional gyms,” said Chris Chavoustie, an Evanston resident. “If this gym has the ability to change lives the way it [changed] mine, it will be well worth it,” he said.

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.