Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the estimated numbers of UL solutions employees expected in Evanston.
Evanston business leaders and economic development officials have repeatedly spoken about the importance of increasing foot traffic downtown, particularly coming out of the pandemic.
More workers downtown presumably means more people frequenting restaurants and buying at local stores during their lunch hours and after work – and just as important, increasing the city’s revenue stream.
It’s no surprise, then, that the City Council decided at its Nov. 14 meeting to grant Northbrook-based UL Solutions’ its request for city zoning variances allowing the company to place its illuminated UL signs atop the 20-story 1603 Orrington Ave. building.
“It’s a big deal,” said Annie Coakley, executive director of Downtown Evanston, the group which manages to the downtown business district. “We need this extra daytime population to support the restaurants, the service sector and retail businesses.”
The company plans to move two divisions, UL Standards and Engagement (ULSE) and UL Research Institute (ULRI), to three floors and a portion of a fourth, totaling approximately 53,000 square feet, at the Orrington Plaza building.
The employees – estimated at about 150 workers, with a plan to grow to about 200 – would initially work on a flex schedule.
At the council’s Nov. 14 Planning & Development Committee meeting and later at the council itself, several speakers urged council members to take into account the benefits the company’s move here would bring when weighing the sign request.
An opportunity in a shrinking office market
Speaking at the Planing & Development meeting, Brian Whiting, whose Chicago-based Telos Group specializes in marketing and leasing commercial office properties, told committee members that his company represents about 26 million square feet in downtown Chicago, including such signature properties as Willis Tower and the Old Post Office.
“And I can tell you from experience that we are now experiencing a very large decrease in the use of office space,” he said. “We estimate that when it all settles out, we will be utilizing about 65% of all the office space to accommodate the same number of employees and companies that used to occupy it.
“Evanston is not immune to the same situation,” he said, “and, as a result, finding new tenants for office buildings has become more difficult. When you have a company like UL looking into moving into the City of Evanston with a 50,000-square-foot lease, which in today’s market reads like 150,000 square feet three years ago, it’s very important that you seize on that opportunity.
“When office space doesn’t fill, doesn’t pay rents, the values of properties go down, the tax base goes down,” said Whiting, who is also a First Ward resident.
Another speaker, Matthew Cavanagh, director of leasing for the ARC Real Estate Group, the leasing agent for the 1603 Orrington Ave. building, delivered a similar message.
Looking to lease retail space in downtown Chicago, he said, the company has really struggled because the area seems deserted.
“We’ve experienced that too [in Evanston],” he told committee members, “in tours we’ve had of our space, especially when Northwestern [University] is not in session.
“So, we’re getting people looking at our space and deciding not to commit because they’re a little nervous about the seasonality of the retail. So, bringing another large 50,000-square-foot office user will do a lot to bring demand.”
Evanston’s transit figured into the decision: UL CEO
Terrence Brady, CEO and President of UL Research Laboratories, formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories, provided Planning & Development members with some background on the company and its decision to move the two divisions to Evanston.
UL is “a 128-year-old organization with nearly 16,000 colleagues across the globe, carrying out the mission to help create a safer, more secure and sustainable world for people everywhere,” he said. “And since 1979, we’ve been headquartered in Northbrook at 333 Pfingsten Road. And if you’ve driven on the spur between the Edens and the Tri-State Expressway, you’ll have seen our campus and the existing signage with the kind of enormous red Underwriters Laboratories sign lit across the way. We were not coming close to looking at something like that here.”
Earlier this year, he said, the company announced a $1.8 billion commitment support growth with more funding for the two divisions, he said.
“We’ve selected Orrington Plaza in Evanston as an ideal location for our new combined headquarters,” he said. “Given that this new space is uniquely situated in a vibrant metropolitan area, with a well-educated and diverse resident employee population, close proximity to prestigious universities, excellent public transportation – of course, our beautiful Lake Michigan – and many locally owned businesses and restaurants.
“We’ve been happy in Northbrook for many years, but we’re out of space. And frankly, we’re looking for a more transit-oriented location, where our employees, our visiting scholars and stakeholders can more easily get to and from our headquarters without needing to either drive their own car or take a single rail line and then a shuttle bus.”
Brady told committee members that he felt Evanston was that location, “because I’m a fourth-generation Evanstonian myself.
“I was born here and raised in Northwest Evanston – Chancellor Street and Park Place – and I attended Haven School,” he said. “Now we all know that metropolitan Chicago was suffering from businesses leaving for other cities and states, and we’re proud not only to announce publicly our commitment to this community of Evanston, we want the people of Evanston to feel that commitment as well.
“We want to join Northwestern and many other local institutions in supporting STEM education, STEM careers and civic and cultural life here in Evanston.”
STEM support for high school students
Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development manager, tallied some of the potential benefits a UL move here would bring.
They include “new jobs, a globally trusted brand,” he said, adding that it “feels like they are certifying our community by relocating here and placing their logo at the highest point of our city.”
He also named UL’s commitment to supporting Evanston high school students with real-world STEM education opportunities that “will hopefully have a generational impact.”
He noted that in the next 18 to 24 months, “We’ll have a completely renovated Orrington Hotel, a new laboratory office building [on the old Burger King site], a revamped movie theater development, and a new performing arts center, among other new developments.”
Altogether, he said, “a pretty clear signal that we are on the right path. Evanston remains a strong investment opportunity.”
Coakley is hopeful that UL’s plan move here will have a ripple effect. At Orrington Plaza alone, the company’s leasing of the top floors will increase that building’s leased rate from 57% to 84%, she said.
“That’s significant,” she said. “That Evanston was able to attract a prominent tenant like this is a feather in our cap.”
As for the economic benefit, a trade organization, ICSC, estimated that the average suburban office worker spends about $203 during the week around the workplace environment, she said, including parking, lunch, services and general spending.
Pulling out her calculator, she said, “if we’re getting 220 people [one estimate of the jobs involved], times $203, that’s $44,660 a week. Real money.”