Evanston officials have released a draft of consultants’ findings in a much-anticipated report, Evanston Thrives, that lays out an action plan for improving the city’s retail districts.

The Evanston Thrives report envisions Fountain Square as a premier event site for the city, and suggests trying it as a new location for the Evanston Farmers Market. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

The Thursday release of the draft report, though, only signals the start of the big job facing local economic development officials: to develop a work plan for the report – whose executive summary alone runs to nearly 20 pages.

Evanston City Council approved a $245,000 contract with Philadelphia-based Interface Studio last May to develop a framework to enhance the quality and mix of retail, food and entertainment offerings throughout the city’s eight retail districts.

In contracting with the firm, officials hoped Interface’s work would provide the city with a framework of a plan to reinvigorate the districts as they emerged from COVID-19.

Interface’s research, initiated in July, incorporated extensive market analysis as well as surveys completed by 2,100 community members, including more than 220 business owners, said Interface’s Sarah Kellerman, briefing the Economic Development Committee on the report’s findings at the committee’s March 22 meeting.

‘Big picture storytelling’

The firm’s mission “ranged from market strategy, attraction strategies to placemaking and urban design strategies,” Kellerman said.

“What we learned when we dug into the process … [with] stakeholders … is that attraction strategy isn’t enough for Evanston,” she said.

“Evanston needs to think bigger about communication, about internal processes, and thinking about really big picture storytelling, and marketing Evanston as a place and as a whole, because Evanston is a very desirable place to locate and run a business,” she said.

“You’ve got a ton of great attributes, scale, connectivity, density, variety,” she told the committee. “And with a more strategic and comprehensive approach you’ll actually be able to get the most out of those great attributes that set you apart from the North Shore communities.”

To that degree, the study reported:

  • “The City’s staff and partners want clear direction from leadership and commitment of resources to implement changes.
  • “Businesses want better communication, more support and collaboration, and a City that plays a role in business development and entrepreneurship.
  • “Brokers and developers want a competitive retail environment and  compelling incentives to choose Evanston.
  • “Merchant organizations want a higher quality physical environment for their customers and relief from real and perceived safety concerns and vacancies detracting from the experience of their Districts.
  • “Everyone wants more to do and see in Evanston.”

City and Northwestern together

The document also pinpointed a number of critical factors for success, including recommending the city forge a strong relationship with Northwestern.

“The University is an economic engine for the city of Evanston; and a strong, healthy, vibrant city is in the interest of the university,” the report says. “The City needs Northwestern University as a partner and champion for Evanston. In return, the city should see the growth and success of the University as a mutual benefit for Evanston.”

In that direction, the report suggests the city partner with the university to produce one event or programming series each year.

“By unlocking the ability for the City, SSA [Special Service Area] Managers, local organizations, and local businesses to host high-quality events,” the consultants suggested, “Evanston can draw audiences within  a short time frame to its retail districts, improve local and regional perceptions of the City, and appeal to diverse communities who may not feel Evanston’s retail districts currently have much to offer them.”

The report also calls for the city to engage the university in increasing student awareness of the downtown area and the use of downtown spaces for events and activities.

Farmers market in Fountain Square?

Beyond the university, the report called for the city to:

  • “Coordinate programming among districts to activate Evanston all year long.
  • “Double down on Fountain Square and the Lakefront at Church Street as premier event locations.
  • “Prepare for and pilot Evanston Farmers Market [now at University Place and Oak Avenue] in Fountain Square.”
Renderings in the Evanston Thrives report show potential year-round activities at Fountain Square.

The report also raised concern about the need for a group to spearhead the changes.

In recent years, SSA districts have played lead roles in the downtown area, Central Street and the Main-Dempster Mile, with the chamber of commerce in a less-visible role than previously.

The SSAs are established by ordinance, funded by a localized property tax levy, and work in partnership with commercial property landlords, business owners and organizations in their areas to market and maintain those districts.

The city’s lean economic development staff, led by Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development manager, have tended to the needs of the non-SSA districts, amid many other duties.

“One of the most  valuable assets of the Evanston community is the sheer number of organizations, residents and businesses that are actively working to market, program and celebrate each of the districts,” the report found. “Significant efforts are underway to coordinate events and communication across the community. …

The Evanston Thrives draft includes suggested “sub-brands” and graphic logos for each Evanston business district, in some cases building off of existing marketing efforts. Credit: "Evanston Thrives" draft

“While coordination between the SSAs and the City is underway to market events and business promotions, residents and visitors expressed frustration around the lack of a one-stop-shop for all happenings throughout the community.”

The consultants advocated that the city adopt “a unified identity and narrative” for Evanston’s business districts and launch a one-stop-shop for events.

City officials are seeking any feedback, edits or additions that community members and others might have to the draft report, posted here on the city website on March 23.

Comments and suggestions will be reviewed by the city’s project team before the final plan is released, officials 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. Please DO NOT move Farmers’ Market to our broken Fountain Square area. When I shop at Farmers’ Market, I am not going to finish my outing by shopping for a pair of pants, shoes, or eat lunch. I am taking my produce home.
    Please find ways to reduce charging parking fees for every inch of Evanston owned land. I am traveling to surrounding communities to shop for clothes, household items and attend concerts, to name a few, They have free parking in front of such businesses as Walgreens, CVS, various restaurants and libraries.
    Please do not spend another $245,000 on an out of town “consulting firm ” to study our city, which they do not know or learned about in such a short time. Evanston asks us residents to “shop local” and it goes all the way to Philadelphia to acquire a consultant firm to do a study. Shame on Evanston leaders.

  2. When the proposal to move the farmers’ market to Fountain Square was soundly rejected by both vendors and shoppers in 2021, I assumed that it was dead so I was shocked to learn today that it had been resurrected in a draft report prepared by a group of consultants based in Philadelphia. This is a proposal to destroy the very successful and much-loved Evanston Farmers’ Market. Anyone who thinks such a move could possibly benefit downtown Evanston has most likely never shopped regularly in a farmers’ market. We want to get our produce home and stored properly a.s.a.p., not do more shopping while our fresh produce wilts. Vendors need ready access to their vehicles to refresh their stands–something that would not be possible with a move to Fountain Square. Please reject this proposal!

  3. Another comment agreeing with all those who wish to keep the farmer’s market where it is. Parking in downtown Evanston is a nightmare, expensive, and hard to find near Fountain Square. Now picture walking two blocks to your car carrying heavy bags of produce. Vendors will have to unload trucks in the heart of town and find other places to park them. That’s where their back-up stock is, so they will be running back and forth, not bringing as much or finding a more vendor-friendly market in which to sell. Evanston’s Farmer’s Market gets rave reviews every year as one of the best in the area. Let us not pull defeat out of the hands of victory.

  4. Oh, no, not again!! Moving the farmers’ market to Fountain square? Please, please, shelve that idea permanently. There was a big fight with lots of petitions signed to keep the market where it is now–that parking lot is perfectly suited for everyone, shoppers and, especially, the farmers. Please use your energy to think of better ways to make Evanston more attractive. Start with decreasing the parking fees; bring back some good stores, clothing, shoes, household goods, furniture, really good restaurants, etc.

  5. I for one, would love to see the farmers market at Fountain Square (or whatever it gets renamed to if we end up scrapping the fountain). It would be a definite shift in habits but it would bring such life into downtown on the weekend and allow for new habits to form. The current location is tucked away, almost hidden.
    As far as parking, we can’t keep speaking from both side of our mouth. We want to move swiftly on CARP goals and sustainability yet all we see in comments is parking, parking, parking. Downtown has bike lane access, bus, train, metra and lake front trails and multiple parking options. Seems like a quite a few of us could get there without a car fairly easily in the summer months. Love the activity and the cross traffic you could see from people going to the farmers market and stopping for brunch/breakfast or another shopping errand. Yes, it annoying to pay for parking but that is the price of convenience and of our impact against CARP goals and sustainability.

  6. This right here: “Evanston City Council approved a $245,000 contract with Philadelphia-based Interface Studio”
    Who in their right mind would authorize this? Get some people from Philadelphia to come look at our town to enhance the quality and mix of retail, food and entertainment offerings throughout the city’s eight retail districts.
    Ok, wait, really? the council members spent a quarter of a million dollars to some consulting firm to see how they can bring more business BACK into Evanston? Well sheesh, you could’ve just asked the RESIDENTS of EVANSTON and saved that money for, oh i don’t know, business incentives?
    You want to know a good mix. here we go:

    1. STOP with the medical facilities!
    It’s sad when you see one anchor store shutter down (pre covid) and a medical facility pops up. it’s worse when you see ANOTHER anchor store shut down (post covid) and THE SAME Medical facility pops up in that. There are more medical facilities in downtown Evanston than there are McDonalds. Like seriously? I don’t want to go downtown to be reminded I will die at some point! You need to pull them out!
    2. There are A TON of sushi restaurants. Why are there are TON of sushi restaurants? I guess we must love our sushi. Need to diversify more and get more business back in there. Remember Pomegranate? that place had THEE best chicken shawarma and hummus. C’mon guys, we’re supposed to be a diverse city, you need to start courting other places to come in.
    3. Farmer’s Market at Fountain Square, are you INSANE? do you know how windy that area gets??? Plus it has a much smaller space versus where the market is today. That will not add business, but we will lose business.
    4. Look into promoting local talent, like musicians or mural painters. Promote the alley bookstore at some point, or make some noise about local businesses that have been in Evanston for decades.
    5. While it’s nice that the movie theater has reopened, you could’ve had a comedy club of some kind next door. rather a clothing store has taken that side. Why? Which brings up another point, there is not much in the way of live entertainment in our city. I remember Pete Miller’s use to book some amazing Jazz bands now that’s gone, where would one go? What about a bigger concert venue for other plays or acts? I mean, Northwestern Medicine has a bunch of buildings in our downtown area.
    6. what’s with building more condos? I’ve seen at least 3 new condo building go up in the last couple of years. What are you guys going to do with all these excess people if there are hardly any places for them to go except for Sushi and Hospital services. Oh wait, there is at least half of a movie theater. so there’s that.

  7. Has Interface Studio actually observed the Evanston Farmer’s Market at University Place and studied how it operates, from 7 AM to 1 PM, in good weather and bad? Or how pedestrian and vehicular traffic proceeds through the intersections of Orrington and Sherman Avenues at Davis Street and would be impacted by the added presence of vendors tents and trucks ? Or how the wind is channeled downward by the high rise buildings that surround Fountain Square? (We no longer have parking meters to cling to when crossing those intersections on gusty days; when it rains, an umbrella is totally useless there.) If Interface Studio’s recommendation that the Farmer’s Market be moved to Fountain Square is any indication of the value of its other advice for reviving downtown Evanston, we have thrown (more) taxpayer money down the drain of Fountain Square’s inoperable fountains.

  8. Two years ago, the Friends of Evanston Farmers Markets spearheaded a brace of fact-finding initiatives to determine what the vendors who populate our Downtown Evanston Farmers Market and the thousands of shoppers who visit throughout the six-month season thought of moving the market from its current location to Fountain Square. Most of the vendors thought it was bad for their business and a preponderance of shoppers agreed–some rather aggressively. Shopper cited increased distance between parking and vendors and reduced space for vendors leading to less available product for purchase as reasons for opposing a change in venue. Vendors cited many reasons for concern, and many concluded that a Fountain Square Farmers Market would not include them as vendors. Friends shared this fact-finding with the City and the readers of our website and recipients of its weekly newsletter. Here are several links to newsletter articles about this subject. https://conta.cc/37D7cLV,
    https://conta.cc/3CYy1Znm https://conta.cc/2VuvUvi, and https://conta.cc/3i4kNkT. Reading these articles and the additional links they provide will give anyone some insight into the likely fate of our nearly 50-year old Farmers Market should it be tucked into Fountain Square. It’s not pretty. There may be many great ideas in Interface Studio’s framework for Evanston’s downtown. Moving the Farmers Market to Fountain Square is not one of them.

  9. I have to wonder how much Northwestern did not tell the Evanston Thrives study team if, as your story says: “the report suggests the city partner with the university to produce one event or programming series each year.”

    One event or programming series? Gee. You’d think a drive to turn northeast Evanston and south Wilmette into a major entertainment zone featuring concerts designed to host several million people each year might have found its way into what was discussed. $245,000 for this study and now we are spending more to do an impact study of the NU plan on Evanston? We deserve a refund.

  10. I think that moving the farmers’ market to Fountain Square is an incredibly bad idea. There is not nearly as much space as at the current location. Everything would be cramped. It would be difficult to move between vendors. A large number of people occupy the space between vendors as they use the market in the current location; imagine fitting them into Fountain Square and adjacent streets. Access to parking would be less convenient, especially for those who are handicapped or have difficulty walking.

    Also, I doubt that people who are patronizing the farmer’s market will likely also patronize the businesses in the area. In fact, by blocking the downtown streets the farmers market might actually reduce local business.

    1. I have been and continue to be supportive of free parking in downtown. I simply don’t go there because of the pay parking and related waste of time needed to use the pay stations. It’s insane to have to pay. Leisurely strolls in downtown use to be our norm. Window shopping so to speak. No more. Fix it please. No not the parking app.

  11. As others have stated, the cost for parking (wheel tax, high hourly rates, parking tickets) in Evanston is prohibitively high. The high cost for parking in Evanston provides an incentive to frequent businesses in neighboring communities. But then everyone know that.

    1. I agree with Steve and others here. The problem has always been parking and it will continue to be parking. No one wants to pay for parking, and surely not the inflated rates and time limitations at meters, nor the increased rates at the parking garages. Parking may not be what the city wants to hear, but it’s the crux of the matter, and not just in the downtown shopping district. Parking on Main Street is a nightmare, too.

  12. Putting the Evanston Farmers Market in Fountain Square is a terrible idea! It’s difficult to park near there, and those of us with physical disabilities would have farther to walk. Why would you move something from a place that is easily accessible for all to a place that is inconvenient for the customers? For the sake of retail $? How absurd!

  13. Please stop all the pay for play meters. Provide areas with free parking, and eliminate the fear of getting very expensive city tickets to pay.