Lessons of a satellite city: How downtown Evanston went from stodgy to sizzling

Transit-oriented development, new retailing, and a changing populace brought an Illinois city to life How does a not-so-big city go from watching its department stores shut down to experiencing an enormous influx of eating places, apartments and condos, entertainment, and other signs of urban vitality? Some of the answers can be found in Evanston, Illinois, a university town of 73,000 on Chicago’s northern border. In the 1980s, Evanston wore an apprehensive expression. The 8.5 square mile city had lost, or would soon lose, every one of its department stores and furniture stores. The era of the traditional retail hub, with anchor stores attracting people from miles around, was ending. If you visit Evanston today, you’ll find quite a different atmosphere. No matter whether it’s a warm summer afternoon or a freezing winter night, there are always people out in downtown Evanston. The big old stores may be gone, but retailing of a different kind is strong, and the downtown is livelier than at any time in the past 30 years. Evanston’s transformation contains lessons applicable to many communities, both smaller and larger. Here are some of the changes that turned the downtown into a thriving urban precinct: • Sociable retailing arrived. A 24,000 sq. ft. Barnes & Noble bookstore featuring a second-floor café and plenty of seating “opened up in 1992 at the 100 percent corner,” says Robert Teska, an Evanston-based planner involved in the downtown’s improvement since 1966. “It became a community meeting place.” Adults started spending a lot of time there. Teenagers congregated at the café after games or on dates. Downtown became more fun. Soon a Borders bookstore followed Barnes & Noble’s lead. Evanston built a new four-story public library within a block of the bookstores, creating synergy, says library director Neal J. Ney. The handsome reddish brick building was designed for an architectural competition by Joseph Powell, an unknown young architect in Philadelphia. Downtown activity was encouraged by the library’s long hours — open seven days a week and until nine o’clock on most weeknights. dining mecca • As activity accelerated, more restaurants opened. Downtown Evanston emerged as the restaurant center of the North Shore. “There were only a handful of restaurants, and not very good ones, when I moved here in 1992,” Ney says. Now the downtown boasts over 80 eating and drinking places, from bagel shops to Trio, an avant-garde French restaurant celebrated nationally. The restaurant scene profits from the 12,500-student, 5,200-employee Northwestern University campus abutting downtown. It benefits even more from the rising number of young working people and empty-nesters who crave urban experiences. • Downtown housing proliferated. Approximately 1,000 housing units, including strikingly designed modern towers up to 27 stories high, have been built downtown in the past ten years or are near completion. Another 500 units, Teska notes, are on the drawing boards. City-lovers who couldn’t afford popular Chicago neighborhoods like Lincoln Park have increasingly seen Evanston as an affordable and lively alternative. • Public transit helped. Evanston is served by four means of mass transit: the Pace system of suburban buses, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses, the CTA’s elevated transit line to the Chicago Loop, and the higher-priced Metra commuter rail system. “Metra has learned there’s a market for higher-quality transit — people who will pay more to do their work in warm, attractive rail cars,” says Terrence Jenkins, who led Evanston’s downtown development organization, EVMark, in the 1990s, and who now runs Business Districts Inc., an Evanston-based consulting firm that advises downtowns across the Midwest. The downtown CTA station was totally rebuilt. The historic Metra station on the same block was remodeled. The Regional Transportation Authority has provided dozens of grants of $50,000 to $150,000 each to help Chicago area municipalities team up with public rail operators to study and implement plans for transit-oriented development around rail stations. “They know that the more attractive the five or six blocks around a train station are, the better the train line is going to do,” Jenkins says. Last year the McDougal Littell publishing house squeezed a new multi-story office building onto a small plot of land between the downtown CTA station and the Metra station. The publisher could have found facilities in a suburban office park for less. But a location next to rail stations and within a short walk of Evanston’s restaurants and shops makes it easier to attract the educated, sophisticated employees upon which publishing depends. bonus markets Commuters going to and from Evanston’s two main stations account for about four to six percent of the downtown’s retail sales, Jenkins estimates. Small “bonus markets” like these are critical to little shops. “In the economics of a small retail business, four to six percent is the difference between the entrepreneur paying himself $8 an hour versus having a bonus at year-end,” he says. • Entrepreneurs from nearby communities opened in Evanston. Jenkins urges municipalities to identify business niches they want to fill, find outstanding entrepreneurs who have demonstrated their skills in those niches in nearby communities, and persuade them to open a new location. Jenkins especially recommends attracting distinctive “local regional chains” — entrepreneurial businesses that have perhaps three or four outlets, all within a 15-minute radius. • Government promoted pedestrian-friendly design. When a Whole Foods supermarket was built downtown, the city pressed to have the store come to the sidewalk and have large windows, uncluttered by big signs, says assistant city manager Judith Aiello. Parking was placed on the roof, not in a surface lot (See “Whole Foods, Good Views”). The Century Theatres complex, which opened in November 2001 with 12 auditoriums for mainstream movies and six for art films, has a spectacular escalator-equipped lobby at ground- and second-story-level, animating the street. The Century sold 1.2 million tickets last year and has been a boon to a downtown previously devoid of movies. To make office buildings pedestrian-friendly, a growing number of cities require retail in the buildings’ ground floor. Jenkins cautions that office developers do not necessarily know how to make retail work. Consequently, it’s important to see that developers get expert advice on the retail end. Altogether, downtown Evanston now has about 270 ground-level businesses. Though department stores and furniture stores are absent, other kinds of retail are numerous. Only three percent of the ground-floor business space is vacant. “Evanston has reinvented itself as a non-anchor-development downtown,” Jenkins says. Teska concurs, adding, “Even those of us who have always had faith in downtown Evanston are in awe of this marketplace.”
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