Annie Coakley will be the first to tell you: Evanston’s downtown business district isn’t known for its nightlife. But Downtown Evanston is hoping to change that.

“I’m hoping that we can have a nighttime economy,” said Coakley, Executive Director of Downtown Evanston. “Because for years since I’ve had this job, people have said, ‘Oh, it’s so quiet after nine o’clock.’”

The area’s traditional customer base has been office workers. Yet that diminished during the COVID-19 shut down, which has not yet rebounded. And there is some fear it might be gone indefinitely. 

Coakley reported the new normal for occupancy at a community meeting July 20. The One Rotary Center, which has offices for up to 700 workers, currently has about 40 in-person workers. The Chase Bank tower, with offices for 1,000, has almost 200 people working there.

This has resulted in a huge loss of foot traffic for a business ecosystem built around the daytime office population. Compounding this loss, Coakley said, is the growing dominance of online shopping. She said although this trend has been undercutting brick-and-mortar shopping for years, the effect was accelerated greatly during the pandemic.

“Just the ease and the convenience, and the pretty much instant gratification, that has also been a major, major challenge,” Coakley said. “It’s tricky to compete with shopping from your couch.”

Therefore, she said, Downtown Evanston is taking steps to restore vibrancy to the area. The freshly launched focus for the downtown marketing is less work, more play.

Movie house reopening?

There are signs that new and reopening venues will reinforce the entertainment and nightlife focus. They are:

  • The movie theater at Church Street Plaza is set to reopen soon, although no definite date has been announced.
  • It will be joined by a Sky Zone trampoline and zipline park.
  • A number of new restaurants will also open in the same building.

Coakley said she’s been impressed by the efforts of developer GW Properties, who bought the plaza in November 2021.

Credit: Downtown Evanston

“They’ve done a lot of work in the year that they’ve owned this property to get a lot of tenants,“ Coakley said. “[There’s] a lot of food, but also that entertainment piece, which I think is desperately needed as part of the whole complementary piece.”

Also, Northlight Theatre is scheduled to return to Evanston in its new home in the fall of 2024. The City Council allocated $2 million in ARPA funds in April for the construction of a new performing arts center.

More recently, new storefronts like Sweetgreen and the Dollop General Store have opened their doors downtown. Coakley said she’s very encouraged by these openings and others, as they have begun to reverse the loss of businesses downtown due to the pandemic.

“I’m happy that we’re cutting ribbons more so than we are removing names of businesses from our website,” Coakley said. “We’re adding more than we’re removing, and that’s fantastic news.”

Downtown Evanston also rolled out new brand material earlier this month, which will soon appear on banners and signs within the district, with the tagline “Your Town. Downtown.”

The June 21, ribbon cutting for Sweetgreen on Sherman Avenue. Credit: Wendi Kromash

Coakley said the effort is to portray downtown businesses as part of the Evanston community. 

“It makes perfect sense, most downtowns do feel pretty corporate because of the corporate offices,” Coakley said. “But it is still a neighborhood, and it has a great neighborhood-y vibe with some of our more independent retailers, and a lot of our restaurants are really, you know, Evanston restaurants.”

In the long term, the downtown area will also work to become more integrated with the rest of the city’s business community.

On May 9 Council approved a six-figure contract with consultant Interface Studio to develop an Evanston Business District Improvement Strategy and Implementation Plan. This plan will outline an immediate and holistic response to the pandemic’s negative economic effects on all 10 of Evanston’s business districts.

Coakley said this unified approach will greatly benefit every district, as the geographic division of Evanston’s businesses puts the city at a disadvantage against centralized shopping centers like Skokie’s Old Orchard Mall and Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

“There was a retail expert, a resident who lives in Evanston, and he said casually in a meeting, ‘You know, if all the retail that Evanston has to offer was in one area, you would have the best retail of any city in the United States,’” Coakley said. “But it is so divided up by neighborhood and geography.”

Alex Harrison reports on local government, public safety, developments, town-gown relations and more for the RoundTable. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June...

5 replies on “With office occupancy down, Downtown Evanston seeks a new market”

  1. If the city REALLY wants to help downtown businesses they MUST address the parking issue. At the VERY least you should be able to park at a meter for the first 15 minutes for free as long as you use the app. This would let people swing by to pick up a coffee, takeaway food, a prefilled order, or drop a package at USPS or UPS. I know I’m not alone is saying that it REALLY ticks me off that I have to pay $.50 just to park for 5 minutes to pick up a donut at Bennison’s or a drink at Back Lot. Until they do at least this minimal amount of help for our local businesses I think the City is just full of hot air and not actually interested in helping our small businesses.

  2. More people would come to Evanston if they didn’t have to pay so much for parking. Other north shore suburbs do not charge for parking to go shopping or have a nice meal out.

  3. I believe there is no way to increase retail business downtown while the parking fees are so high. Everyone I speak to says the same thing. Reduce theses fees to create more traffic.

  4. While I can appreciate the need for parking control, I stopped shopping in Evanston a few years ago because of the out of control parking meter enforcement, having received the following violations:

    Came out of a restaurant on Davis to find a ticket on my car with the meter still running, only to see that a motorcycle fad parked in front of me, so we both got tickets for parking in the same spot. I contested it and was told that unless I could prove that the motorcycle wasn’t there when I parked, the fine would not be waved. After that I usually took a picture…

    Got a ticket for not feeding the meter after a huge snowstorm and the lot had been cleared that’s adjacent to the YMCA..only in clearing the lot them burried the parking meters in snow. Everyone in the lot got a ticket. When I contested it, I was told that if there is a meter present I must feed it and if it’s not reachable then I shouldn’t park there..fine was not dismissed.

    I parked in front of the WFM in the space that says for loading and unloading. I opened my trunk and went inside to get my groceries and an officer was writing me a ticket. When I said that I was loading, he said it was for trucks only..when I contested it..the fine held.

    My wife called me to pick her up at a downtown office building. She was waiting inside the lobby and was walking toward the car when the meter maid with a long stick wrapped on the roof of my car telling me to move on since this was a cab zone.

    Since I don’t have a smart phone and the maneuvers one needs to make at the parking stations are difficult, especially if the sun is shining on the station, making it almost impossible to read the commands and they don’t take change. It’s just too much, despite my respect for Evanston and the community.

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