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.
“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.”
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.”