The future of Evanston is looking a little brighter and more beautiful too.

Residents of the city could see new murals, public seating, unique branding and improved pedestrian infrastructure pop up around business districts over the next few years as part of a post-pandemic city initiative focusing on revitalization and placemaking, presented at Tuesday’s Fourth Ward meeting.

Evanston Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak discussed Evanston’s economic pandemic recovery at the meeting, led by Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, before leaders from two Evanston special service areas (SSAs). Zalmezak also talked about a city project focused on community engagement and placemaking within eight business districts in Evanston.

“Downtown Evanston is struggling because we had something like 20 to 25,000 daytime office workers within a half a mile of the center [of downtown], call it Sherman and Church,” Zalmezak said. “Those individuals are not back, and this is a national problem in cities.”

While Zalmezak noted Evanston’s office and retail vacancy rates are both hovering around 10%, he said some empty buildings are not considered vacant if closed businesses are still paying leases, even though downtown feels “quiet” and “dark” and many restaurants are struggling from the shortage of customers at lunchtime.

Zalmezak then focused his presentation on highlighting positive developments in downtown Evanston, like the 2021 opening of Inspired Indian Cooking, 812 Dempster St., the anticipated opening of the whiskey bar Oskar on Custer Avenue this spring and plans for Evanston Labs, a private laboratory building on Clark Street, to be ready for tenant build-outs by the fourth quarter.

Downtown Evanston Business Development and Marketing Manager Laura Brown explains how the Downtown Evanston SSA supports businesses and takes care of the physical space it encompasses. Credit: Trent Brown

Laura Brown, Downtown Evanston business development and marketing manager, and Katherine Gotsick, Main-Dempster Mile executive director, spoke about the businesses and initiatives their SSAs support and oversee. Brown mentioned the Evanston Gift Card, a digital gift card that can be used in restaurants and shops all over the city, and Gotsick discussed the Custer Oasis, an outdoor dining space that restaurants within the SSA share.

Toward the end of the meeting, Zalmezak took the floor again to talk about the Evanston Thrives Retail District Action Plan, a framework for Evanston to focus on branding, placemaking and community engagement to revitalize eight distinct business districts, including downtown Evanston and the Main-Dempster Mile, following a monthslong market analysis.

Evanston Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak presents details about Evanston Thrives’ funding and timeline. Credit: Trent Brown

Zalmezak said the plan emerged partly to help the districts recover from the pandemic and partly to allow Evanston to keep up with similar economic efforts in neighboring municipalities like Skokie and Wilmette. The plan would also give residents places to go and events to see n their communities, such as public art installations, public concerts and improved signage.

“People want to be outside. Evanston Thrive says get outside,” he said. “This is really about, ‘What can we do to get people into the storefronts, but also engage with the broader streetscape?’”

Join the Conversation


The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Retail vacancy is at 10%? That number is frankly unbelievable when we can see with our own eyes it’s much higher. More like 25% by my recent count over a few hours walking around a couple weeks ago. There were 20,000 to 30,000 office workers in Evanston prior to Covid?!? This is very hard to believe. Are you sure it wasn’t 2,000 to 3,000? Which companies were 20-30,000 office workers working for? There are only a handful of midsized office buildings downtown. I have never heard of any employers in Evanston with thousands of employees other than NU and the hospital so this doesn’t add up. Even those two employers are not really downtown as much as north of downtown and n Evanston and their employees have been and are working in person. How is it possible Evanston had so many office workers and now we don’t? Which companies employed them? I’m not aware of any large employers/companies based in Evanston beyond those I mentioned. Please provide a breakdown, Paul. Otherwise these are truly unbelievable stats. Could you be mistaken or is something else going on here?. Thanks

  2. I hope the plans include improvements to the planters along Sherman/Davis at Sherman Plaza. As residents of downtown Evanston for over 10 years, we have looked at the same dead trees, shrubs and broken lights. Murals are nice, please but take care of existing eyesores first.

  3. Is anyone talking about parking? Is there a way to help support our restaurants draw customers by offering some kind of parking options? How much would the city lose by offering parking vouchers for restaurant customers in our downtown parking lots? I have many friends in Skokie who would come to Evanston to shop and dine, but don’t because of the cost of parking. There has to be some creative way to make the downtown more welcoming to customers.

    1. I agree 100%!

      It’s absolutely the parking and for some reason it’s never addressed in any of these economic development reports. So much magical thinking in this town. If we just paint more murals it will fix the problems. It won’t. Give businesses vouchers for an hour free parking with purchase or just make parking free for the first hour.

      I also agree with Leo, these numbers sound bogus. Where did those 30k workers work?

      Again – so much magical thinking in this town! Evanston suffers from thinking we are so exceptional. Let’s be realistic. Let’s look at other towns like Skokie and see what they are doing right. Every time some one mentions how nice downtown wilmette has become Paul Zalmezak and Mayor Biss get so annoyed and try to downplay the success and tell us that it’s not possible in evanston because we are such a different community. It’s nonsense.