The economic development climate in Evanston is expected to start warming up next month, when a report on Evanston business districts is due.

An empty downtown space as seen in the fall. Real estate analytics firm CoStar’s figures say Evanston’s ground floor retail vacancy rate is just 11%. Credit: Evan Girard

At the city’s Economic Development Committee meeting Wednesday, Jan. 25, Paul Zalmezak, Evanston’s economic development manager, briefed members on Evanston’s downtown area as a kind of prelude to the report.

In February, officials expect to receive the results of a $245,000 study of the city’s business districts conducted by Philadelphia-based consultant Interface Studio.

In May of last year, city council members voted to contract with the group to conduct the study, described as “a highly focused community engagement and business district market analysis.”

Staff members hope to use the study results to draw up a blueprint to guide the immediate economic recovery of the districts as the city emerges from Covid, as well as lay the groundwork for future success.

At the Jan. 25 Economic Development Committee meeting, Zalmezak spoke about what recent figures say about vacancy rates in the office and retail sectors.

Office markets have been struggling nationally, with many office workers staying home during Covid.

Office vacancy rate could point to reawakening market

Evanston’s office vacancy rate stands at a respectable 11% right now, despite the pandemic, said Zalmezak, using figures from CoStar, which keeps real estate analytics.

Evanston Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak makes point at the Jan. 25 Economic Development Committee meeting. Katheryn Boden, economic development specialist, is on the right. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

He told committee members, “We’ve heard from experts that when the vacancy rate gets down to 10%, that sparks the market to build another office.”

When the market shrinks to a low enough rate, he said, “there are companies that want to be here, but can’t fit into the small spaces that are vacant. So there is an argument to be made that investors in office, when it warms up again – not weather wise, but the market – would consider building more office [space].”

To some degree, Zalmezak said, the city has seen signs of that movement already with the 10-story mixed-use building that developer Trammel Crow is building at the former Burger King site at 1734-40 Orrington Ave. and an 18-story office building planned for 605 Davis St.

Ground floor retail market vacancy at 10%

Surprisingly, downtown Evanston’s retail market space showed an even lower vacancy rate for ground floor space, at 10%.

Further, Zalmezak suggested, that 10% figure may be a little high. The Panera Bread space, for instance, closed nearly three years ago and is about to go back on the market.

The space, 1700 Sherman Ave., is located along the “number one intersection in the city for retail,” he said.

Although Panera closed in March 2020, the owners did not exit their lease. “They’re paying their rent. The lease ends in three months.”

Similarly, with new ownership at the Orrington Hotel, that should help fill “the Unicorn space,” said Zalmezak, referring to the space around the Unicorn Cafe, another Covid casualty, which also closed in 2020.

The Unicorn Cafe site and businesses around it are located in a parking garage that serves the hotel and now has a new owner invested in improving spaces, Zalmezak said.

‘It doesn’t feel like a 10% vacancy rate’: committee member

Really, Zalmezak argued, the challenge the city faces in its rebuild has less to do with the vacancies and more about the occupants themselves.

“Pick out a category,” he said to committee members. “How many Bubble Tea places do you need?” (The website Yelp actually lists a Top Ten in that category.)

“Remember the burger wars a few years ago?” he said. “We had four burger places.” Zalmezak said the city should “be strategic” and discuss with Interface consultants “What kind of retail do we want to attract?”

Committee member Lisa Dziekan said that while the statistics showing a low vacancy rate are probably correct, “from a pedestrian perspective, it sure doesn’t feel that way.”

“We have a lot of properties that are in transition,” she said, naming the movie theater that, while now open, has portions not built out. 

“The experience in our downtown is not what it has been. I don’t know how you want to define it,” she said, but “it doesn’t feel like a 10% vacancy rate.”

Zalmezak said he did not want “the numbers to intend to suggest that we’re in good shape.”

“When I walk our downtown as a pedestrian, I’m troubled,” Dziekan said. Replied Zalmezak, “I’m troubled as well.” However, he added, “as somebody in the know, I feel like we’re going to be OK in 18 months.”

Old Orchard redevelopment another factor

During the presentation, Zalmezak admitted initial concern at hearing Westfield Old Orchard Mall’s $100 million announcement last month of plans to redevelop that site by adding residences, more eateries and outdoor areas with a pedestrian feel.

Old Orchard, less than three miles from Evanston’s downtown, has been on Evanston’s mind since it opened in the mid-1950s. (Evanston RoundTable reporter Mary Gavin provides some of the details of that history in Encountering Evanston History, published by Evanston RoundTable Media NFP late last year.)

In the city’s instructions to Interface Studio, which came before the Westfield announcement, the mall was cited as a major challenge.

In discussion, Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, said, “I do think we have to be really, really concerned about that. I mean, I think Evanston has better bones, we have more density downtown. We have a lot more to offer.”

But he said, recalling visits to Old Orchard as a youngster, the mall represented “a safe place to take the family because you can kind of let your kids run around. You don’t have to worry about a car popping out of somewhere.

“And I think to revitalize our downtown for the modern era … I really think we need to start thinking [about] getting cars out of our downtown and creating [a] pedestrian-friendly area.”

Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, chairing the meeting, said he liked the idea. He also said he disagreed with a bleak assessment of the threat posed by a renovated Old Orchard.

“We have our public transportation. … We’ve got Metra, we’ve got the lakefront,” he said rattling off some of Evanston’s advantages. “I’m not concerned about losing to that [mall redevelopment].”

Nieuwsma said the city’s plan to remake Evanston’s business districts should use Old Orchard as a “benchmark.”

Dziekan suggested that the city look to other North Shore communities that “are doing a good job at place-making, that are doing a good job clustering restaurants, that are doing things in a way that I don’t think we’re capturing right now.”

She added, “I would look carefully before we close streets to cars.” She pointed to State Street in downtown Chicago, which was converted into a pedestrian mall in the late 1970s, and then was later reopened to pedestrian traffic.

“I think there’s a way of doing a lot of things that we want to see without closing it to cars,” she told the committee.

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. Closing the streets? Is a Bad, bad idea…Look at Rockford downtown in 70’s …Everyone left. No one needs the hassle in this weather town. More valets- yes!
    Tax less, not more, then turn around and reduce of 4 of 20 pages of employees on the city payroll. Tighten your budget! Take an inventory of city staff-reduce it.
    Why do we pay people in failing areas, nothing like ours, to revive ours?
    Breath new life into creating places to build workforces for that city retired skill set that give tax to the city, not consume it. Businesses friendly towns increases the tax base. Large city staff consumes taxes.
    Safety-Police matter. Last time I looked, there are no gates on Evanston streets, the crime comes from where?? Give police respect.

    Livability??! Why is a small townhouse property tax is more than $1,000 per month in property tax? Even if you are a senior. Townhomes usually have a small patch good green space and trees, good for the environment; whereas, towers do not.
    The tax dollars collected still leave 30%-ish children cannot read over 3rd grade?
    4,900 students and 550 or more children cannot read past 3rd grade?
    We need more teachers or more tutors and small classrooms.

    Give land owners renovate for tech friendly interior with a tax break incentive, and keep our beauty, our charm with the old brick buildings facades and stop destroying the the downtown.
    Try dotting in a Tech Tutor in reading and math art gallery spaces and help places make them fun interactive. By giving tax incentives to reading business for a fun, Safe, place to enjoy. And add growing rooms for healthy mind encouragement.

    Require every towers builder to keep the brick fronts and build tower on a 20 foot set back from the old brickscape front, as to lessen the new tower feeling. They can put balconies in the recover some of the space lost above. Set backs can be green and inviting. The lower set back, a lobby or shop.
    Certainly the builders could put a green rooftop place in the set back area, somewhat like the children’s playground at the 1603 plaza rooftop or restaurant rooftop space.
    The Hilton on Main in Norfolk VA has an amazing restaurant w/ full sliding window walk out to outside space set on upper floor.
    Have smaller transport, instead of, largely empty buses.
    Consider a reverse valet. Develop and park and ride, in city garage, and a timed transport based on size of group or preference: smaller 12 person shuttle or 6 person bicycle carriage or 2 person golf cart takes you to destination.
    Give city tours.
    Create larger better protected outside eatery spaces by reducing street parking.
    Galleries, and other places of interest. Keep green space. Add more interest, food trucks, to lakefront.

    Embrace the old with the new space by not destroying the charm.
    The recent builds are so visually unappealing and anywhere/everywhere.
    It does not hold your interest nor make you feel like you want yo go back or that you have been in a “special” kind of place.

    Key to all is Keep Evanston safe. Police walk the streets or ride in smaller vehicles. Have respect for all and are shown respect.

    Wondering-Will the Fountain Square water works ever work properly? How much was this so far?
    Also, how green was/is Robert Crown? Light pollution and Traffic are not green.

    Keep Evanston safe, charming, safe and vibrant.

  2. Williams Shoes, Barnes &Noble, The Unicorn, Panera Bread, The Gap, all gone! And the Farmhouse, Found also gone. And you wonder why people are not coming downtown? We almost lost Bookends &Beginnings too. And those parking fees? It is going to take a long long time to recover. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not being realistic and is not helping making downton Evanston attractive.

  3. I live 3 blocks from Fountain Square and next door is virtually aflame with people complaining about parking in general in downtown Evanston and of course the parking meters. People will not leave their cars and won’t walk 2 or 3 blocks where free parking is readily available at the edges of the downtown area and in the evening there are no neighborhood time restrictions. Closing streets to cars in downtown Evanston would b a disaster. There are spots where in the summer a lane of traffic could be closed to allow outdoor dining but Old Orchard would be delighted to see streets totally closed to cars.

  4. The bars and restaurants left in Evanston are disappointing at best. Liquor taxes and property values make every option too expensive. Skokie has some actual dive bars and family owned restaurants that are way more affordable. I love the Barn and Farmhouse but now we have another Amy Morton restaurant which is $$$. There are no real family restaurants and most bars close by 9:30. Vacancy rates are fine but downtown Evanston nightlife is DEAD.

    1. There is no social or cultural scene here for adults as far as I can tell, with or without alcohol. I don’t know what it is (aside from the vagrant / panhandling issues) but there is a sterile and unwelcoming feel to all of downtown. Even the movie theater feels dead, even though I know it’s open. Also, retail is more than offices and restaurants. So yeah we could fill up downtown with those and technically have 0 vacancy, but there is only so much 73k people can go out to eat.