Rendering of climbing wall proposed for the former recycling center from City of Evanston materials

Members of an aldermanic committee cut the cord Oct. 12 on a contract extension with a developer seeking to bring a state-of-the art climbing gym to the City’s long-shuttered recycling center at James Park.

Andy Stein, formerly with Clark Street Real Estate, and now with S. Point Ventures, sought the extension, partly to give First Ascent & Fitness, the operator of the climbing gym more, time.

First Ascent Climbing & Fitness reported that they “remain committed to the Evanston location,” staff reported in a memo, “but are not in a position to move forward immediately in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Winter is the busiest time for First Ascent,” the memo said. “During the upcoming winter months, they plan to evaluate the strength of their business as people shift from outdoor activities to indoor activities – while maintaining COVID-19 safety protocols.”

Staff recommended approving an extension a third time, extending S. Point Ventures contract until May 21 of next year for the purchase and sales agreement for the City-owned property.

But the item failed to make it out of the Council’s Administration & Public Works Committee and to the Council floor, in effect ending the City’s involvement on the project.

Alderman Ann Rainey, in whose Eighth Ward the site is located, argued that it was time for the City to move on to another use.

“We have extended this contract set twice since the original signing,” she said. Point Ventures is asking for a six-month extension, through May 21, so that First Ascent can continue to assess their status, she noted.

“They are then asking for a second extension through Oct. 31, 2021, so that they can work on receiving approvals including building permits etc. They are hoping to acquire the property by November 30, 2021,” she said.

“I am asking you,” she said, addressing aldermen on the Committee, “for the Evanston City Council to say this deal is done. I understand that everyone has issues with COVID-19, and rock-climbing walls are not that compatible with the virus at this time. However, I did hear from the developer that First Ascent is being courted by various malls. I’m certain other geography will be just as attractive to climbers, if not more so as Evanston’s western border, not to mention their [the proposers’] opportunity for parking, etc.,  will be much greater if located, let’s say an Old Orchard.”

“Times have changed,” she said. “The sale of 2222 Oakton for 1 million or so dollars to a retail developer who has a potential tenant and needs another year to decide whether or not they can perform is the worst deal in town,” she said, asking aldermen for a “no” vote in the extension.

Could Fill Space Needs

Meanwhile, the City’s Public Works Director Dave Stoneback said the City could continue to make use of the former recycling warehouse as a storage center. Specifically, during the winter time the City uses the warehouse to store materials for backfill — stone, sand as well as asphalt mix. 

He said other items are also stored there, including the City boats used in lakefront operations.

City officials did explore other facilities outside of Evanston for that use but were unable to find anything that met their needs, he said.

In a memo on the issue, Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Coordinator, noted that Clark Street and First Ascent have had the property under contract for approximately 20 months, seven of which have been impacted by COVID-19.

During that period, he said, Mr. Stein estimated expenditures of approximately $100,000 to cover the City’s fees, costs associated with submitting plans, and the due diligence expenses such as attorney fees, studies, plans, and other property research.

The developer had pegged the total project costs at $4.7 million. In addition to a $1.1 million acquisition cost. Clark Street estimated $2.75 million in building/infrastructure and renovation costs.

Climbing Gym Long Eyed Evanston 

First Ascent, meanwhile, estimated 2,000 members and several hundred visitors each day would be drawn to the Evanston facility, which was to feature 250 climbing routes. 

At the meeting, held remotely over Zoom, Jon Shepard, co-founder of First Ascent Climbing & Fitness, spoke of  First Ascent’s long interest in bringing a climbing gym to the James Park location.

“I’m guessing  a number of you are aware First Ascent  identified Evanston as a community that we wanted to be a part of years ago. We actually submitted the very first RFP (Request for Proposal) in 2015 or earlier for this building,” he told aldermen. “And because of its location next to other outdoor athletic activities, because of the tall heights in the building, because of the parking on site, we’ve been committed to this project, and to Evanston for years.”

In that regard, he said, the reason for the delay “has nothing to do with any kind of hesitancy about the project.”

Rather, because of the pandemic and the shutdown rules, First Ascent has been closed for months and is just now operating again, at about 25% occupancy, he said.

As the business slowly reopens, “we’re requiring people to book their slots on their phone and ahead of time, and we’ve been booked up for days out ahead of time in our various locations. So we know our customers want to come back.  

“We feel very bright about the future of rock climbing. But we need this period to be able to just get us through the closure period, get us through this restriction of 25% occupancy before we’re ready to commit to this project and the significant spending it’s going to be on us to put climbing walls and specialized flooring and  fitness equipment at this location,” he said.

He said the deal was “negotiated and we were really happy to do it in the pre-Covid world.”

But “given I don’t know what’s going to happen during this pandemic – I don’t know if it’s going to continue for twelve months or longer and how fitness gyms will be impacted it’s hard to make a commitment going forward … We do need time to be able to re analyze how we’re going to be able to how the pandemic is going to affect us getting through the winter to spring,” he said.

But the Committee, with Alderman Rainey taking the lead, rejected the extension request.

Voting with her against extending the contract with the developer were Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward.

Voting in favor of an extension was Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6thWard.

Ald. Braithwaite said at first he thought developers were making “a fair request to ask for the additional time, given the COVID-19.”

He also thought “this is something that definitely deserves to go to full Council, because there were many members that participated in this conversation.”

Further into discussion, he said if “they’re talking about renegotiating the price, then terminate it,” supporting that action in Committee.

Ald. Simmons noted that since the original proposal, “the market has changed; conditions change;  our needs are being more [served] through storage and other needs on current uses that we can have access to that facility.”

Further, she said, she also has not heard from residents  “a high level of community engagement and anticipation of the rock climbing business,” as described by First Ascent.

Ald. Rainey said the best way to deal with the situation is, “We say, ‘All right, you had 20 months; we can’t deal with this anymore. It is legal to tell you we’re going to cut bait here; the contract is no longer valid.’ Maybe in a couple of years, we’ll be ready to sell this place,” she suggested


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.