Rendering of proposed climbing tower courtesy of Clark Real Estate

A developer has proposed a 60-foot high addition to the City’s former recycling center, allowing climbers to learn the ropes – literally – in a change proposed at City staff’s Dec. 18 Design & Project Review Committee meeting.

Andy Stein of the Clark Street Real Estate group, proposed the addition, presenting the company’s plans for the building, which is located at the edge of James Park at 2222 Oakton St.

The Chicago-based real estate group is purchasing the land from the City and then leasing it to First Ascent, an operator of climbing gyms in Chicago as well as some suburbs.

At the Evanston site, First Ascent is planning to provide 20,000 square feet of climbing with 250 routes to climb and a fitness area with cardio equipment and functional strength equipment.

Clark Street’s plans call for the rope gym to be part of a 5,000-square foot-addition to be built on what was the loading dock at the former recycling center.

Mr. Stein told Committee members that being able to offer rock climbing is “just additive to the experience” that participants would get at First Ascent. It would “make it truly a unique facility in the City of Evanston,” and with James Park and the 68,000-square-foot Quad Indoor Sports dome situated just to the west, the area would serve as “a kind of recreational campus on Oakton and something very experiential,” he said.

The need for a separate tower had not come up in hearings on the proposal last spring, where focus was more on the suitability of a gym at that site compared to other uses.

Sitting in at the Dec. 18 design meeting, Alderman Ann Rainey, in whose Eighth Ward the site is located, asked Mr. Stein why he had not told officials about the tower at the outset.

Residents might have felt different about the plan if they knew of that design element, she suggested.

Responded Mr. Stein, “I think when we responded to the RFP [Request for Proposal] we talked about the flexibility of looking at the existing building and working with the existing building for a bouldering [a shorter form of climbing a with a cushioned pad below to protect against falls] fitness-yoga facility, and then also looking at creating a larger facility that could accommodate rope [climbing],” Mr. Stein responded.

He predicted that the gym will not only be unique to Evanston, but serve as a regional draw.

In discussion, City staff, meanwhile, focused much of their attention at the meeting on the ground end — the developer’s proposed parking as well as entrances and exits from at the site, which sits off busy Oakton Street.

The Clark Street plans call for modifications to a traffic signal on Oakton Street to allow for entrances and exits to the site. A circular drive would allow traffic to flow through the site and then back out to a stoplight on Oakton, where cars could turn either left or right.

Bike racks would go in next to the front door. A drop-off lane is key, said a Clark Street representative, with peak periods of high volume traffic coming into the site for events, with five, 10 or 15 drop-offs.

“Those kinds of people aren’t necessarily staying, but they’re dropping off their kids and leaving,” he said.

City Engineer Lara Biggs, though, identified a number of conflict points that would have to be worked out, many of them non-issues when the recycling center was in operation because of employees’ regular schedules.

“As we look at traffic on Oakton and on the verge of James Park, it’s very complicated,” she said. “You have a lot of downstream issues.

“A lot of cars are merging in that space to go down to one lane and at the same time people are dashing across Oakton to get to James Park.”

In that context, she suggested that the developers’ traffic circulation plan is actually a deficit for the City.

The developers recognize that “pedestrian safety is paramount, and we want that,” Mr. Stein said.

At the same time, “there’s a blend of balancing the customer experience versus the street experience,” he said, noting that a traffic analysis would be done as part of the plan development process

Committee members held off on a vote on the concept, planning to resume discussion of the issue when the group begins meeting against at the start of the new year.

The staff review is non-binding and a first step in the Planned Development process, with the developers expected to appear before the City’s Plan Commission and ultimately the City Council, which has final say.

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.