Keeping Evanston's ground-floor spaces occupied and lively is one of the challenges that may be addressed in a new proposed study of the city's business districts. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

Evanston officials are recommending a Philadelphia urban design firm for a comprehensive study of the city’s business districts, suggesting ways the city can realign itself in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee recommended April 27 that the city enter into a $245,000 contract with Interface Studio to provide the study, which would incorporate extensive community participation.

The study would include downtown as well as the city’s other business districts.

Officials have recommended that half of the project be paid for out of federal American Recovery Plan Act funds and the other half from revenues generated by five city tax increment finance districts.

The proposal will next go to the City Council for consideration.

Closing sign at the downtown LA Fitness storefront. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

Evanston business districts face unusual pressures, said Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, in a memo and presentation supporting the study.

“Being located less than three miles from Old Orchard, one of the country’s premier regional shopping centers, and thirty minutes north of Chicago’s world renowned shopping and entertainment puts Evanston at a competitive disadvantage,” wrote Zalmezak.

“Online shopping, parking challenges (real and perceived), expensive rents, property taxes and the uncertainty of the pandemic have created confusion amongst retailers, small businesses and business district service providers perhaps never experienced in Evanston despite its many economic evolutions.”

Zalmezak also suggested that organizations responding to the challenge are sometimes working at cross purposes, “often overlapping or duplicating, in order to retain businesses and attract new retail, experiential and services establishments to each of our nearly dozen business districts.”

“There is not a cohesive plan and little is done to measure effectiveness,” he wrote. “We should be creating and supporting more impactful strategies, initiatives and programs, as well as measuring our successes, including benchmarking against other similar communities. These efforts require a cohesive approach to retail attraction for all of Evanston’s historic and emerging districts.”

He expressed hope the study “will help align all of our efforts to a successful recovery similar to the success we experienced each time we transformed our economy – post war, post-department-store era, back-to-the-city 1990s, and post-financial crisis/great recession in 2008.’’

Interface Studio’s experience includes work on 20 downtown and commercial corridor plans in cities such as Atlanta; Chicago; Detroit; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Milwaukee.

The firm describes itself as as “an inventive and imaginative planning and urban design practice” whose mission “is to help communities, large and small, think about where they are now, what they would like to become, and which steps are needed to get there,” Zalmezak said in his memo.

Central to the firm’s work is the message that “every place has a story to tell,” he said. “Planning and design is a means of storytelling,” according to Interface Studio, and the firm believes its role is to “mine for data and help uncover the trends that shape our cities,” Zalmezak wrote.

Beyond the ‘retail apocalpse

The timeline the company has sketched out for officials includes a listening-analysis stage for one to two months. During that time, Interface Studio is proposing that a local task force be formed that could include a mix of business owners, property owners and residents from the various business districts.

Listening sessions with key stakeholders will also be held, according to the firm’s strategy and implementation plan. An interactive mapping survey launched during that period would ask survey respondents from the various business districts “what they love, which spots need love, and what barriers currently exist to them visiting each of the districts (accessibility, safety, marketing + communications, vibrancy, etc.)” under study.

The firm’s focus goes beyond the “retail apocalypse” explanation – shoppers moving away from brick-and-mortar stores to buying online, the narrative sometimes advanced as a large cause of traditional businesses’ struggle.

Extensive community listening process

“Cities go through cycles, retail goes through cycles,” said Scott Page, founder and a Principal with the firm, speaking at the April 27 meeting. “That said, we really need different approaches to how we address retail downtown commercial corridors.”

He said issues such as “cannibalizing” businesses from other districts or competition from surrounding municipalities are concerns that have to be considered.

“But what happens at the street level drives the economy,” Page said. For that reason, officials have to think “very carefully” about the various business districts’ first-floor space, he said.

Along with that, Page told the committee, officials have to think about what programs stimulate small-business growth.

He said officials should look at the design of the street itself. “If it feels like a highway, it’s not going to be a welcoming place for people to hang out and shop at local businesses,” he said.

Interface is proposing a seven-month period for the study, with two months of “listening and analysis” on the front end, followed by “concepting and vetting” for two additional months. The draft and final plan would come in months five through seven, the firm’s submission indicates.

Zalmezak told the committee members that he was initially concerned when told by the firm that the process was going to take seven months. Officials had hoped for a shorter time frame.

But Zalmezak said “one of the strong advantages of Interface’s proposal is that they have a strong community process up front, which I have not seen in a consulting project.”

Zalmezak told committee members that officials may have to address major business issues that arise during the study period.

“But as it relates to business district infrastructure, funding for strategies to fill storefronts, those types of things, let’s pause … let’s let this group help us think it through,” 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.

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  1. So now Evanston’s attributes are a competitive disadvantage, whereas in past articles, these same city employees have cited its attributes as competitive advantages (as recently as a few weeks ago). How about for every 250k contract with a consultant we let go of a couple Evanston economic development personnel? They’re clearly not up to the task. Or hire people who’ve worked in successful places as opposed to people who come from depressed stagnant midwestern locales.

    1. Hi Kelly-

      Would love to hear what ideas you have. Please participate and help make things better. Our consultant, if hired, will be able to focus solely on creative solutions to setting us up for the next era.

      It’s not a zero sum game. It’s not either staff do it or consultant. It’s a team effort. We will collaborate. They will be an extension of city staff for 7 months. We can continue our day to day retention and grant management programs. But it’s more than a small team can handle alone.

      Let me know if you would like to meet for coffee to discuss this in more detail. We could use your help moving us forward.

      1. Glad to hear there is going to be a major focus on this. Andersonville and Lincoln Square are closer to Chicago then we are and they’re not hurting. Both of those areas absolutely crush it when it comes to interesting places to eat and drink especially compared to Evanston. Also why are we even trying to compete with old orchard? Do we want downtown to resemble a mall?
        What can we do to attract more unique and interesting establishments?
        3rd ward is a GREAT example of enabling unique and interesting place to draw in visitors: Hoosier Mama, Dollop, Sketchbook…
        We should survey the people of Evanston regarding the types of businesses they would like to see in addition to any input from an out of town firm.
        Finally, can we please revisit the liquor tax in this city? We are not going to compete with Chicago or Old Orchard on that metric