Evanston’s City Council this week voted to spend $245,000 on consultants to develop an improvement strategy and implementation plan for the city’s 10 business districts.

Ten city staff members and business district leaders reviewed proposals from five firms that responded to the city’s request for proposals and recommended Philadelphia-based Interface Studio, LLC for the project.

Half of the project cost is to be covered by American Rescue Plan Act funds, the rest from the city’s five active tax increment financing districts.

Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak says Interface will carry out “a highly focused, community engagement and business district market analysis to improve the quality and mix of retail, food and entertainment offerings” in the 10 business districts.

Those districts, he says, have seen the COVID-19 pandemic aggravate existing challenges including competition from online retailers, expensive rents and property taxes and parking challenges.

He says the project should develop a blueprint for ways to implement new initiatives or enhance existing strategies to help with immediate economic recovery and “prepare us for future success.”

A new plaza in the Uptown Ecoinnovation District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with integrated stormwater infrastructure.

Interface will be the lead firm for a team that will also include MJB Consultants, a retail planning and real estate consultancy; Ninigret Partners, an economic consulting firm, and All Together, a place-based creative agency that has done some projects for Downtown Evanston in recent years.

A presentation from Interface says the consultants’ “collective roles are to understand the barriers to investment, growth and change in Evanston’s business districts today and push the project stakeholders to think differently about the future of these areas.”

The proposal envisions a seven-month process from May through November that would involve focus groups, community conversations, an interactive virtual workshop and community survey to develop a market plan for the business districts.

The proposal, recommended by the city’s Economic Development Committee, was approved without discussion Monday night on the City Council’s consent agenda.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. I wish Evanston would look into other communities such as Milwaukee or as local as Melody Farm in Vernon Hills. Evanston would THRIVE again if they would just follow them as an example. Evanston had the feel of small town charm. People love that! Spending this kind of money is absurd when the solution is easy. Too much congestion for the wrong reasons.

  2. The current downturn in business activity coincided with Evanston adopting the Chicago model for on street parking – massive increases in hourly fees, and massive increases in inconvenience. I live here, and I’m starting to avoid visiting local businesses for the above reasons.
    I’m expecting to hear responses about how the parking app is so convenient, but welcome to the real world for a couple minutes. A lot of older smartphones have trouble with apps in general and I have no intention of upgrading so Evanston can have an easy time collecting parking fees.
    You want business (and customers) to come back? Make business district parking free or bring back the meters.

  3. I will save the city $122.5K:
    1. Improve access to business districts via safe walking/biking/public transit options
    2. Reduce car traffic in the business districts themselves and increase green space/shaded areas so that people want to spend time there
    3. Maintain accessibility for those that need cars and parking

  4. It’s great that there is attention to revitalizing the business districts. That said, from what can be gathered from this article, looking to solve for “barriers to investment” is looking backwards and from a deficit perspective. And at the same time, awnings and painted sidewalks won’t solve the business challenges. Yes we need to fix the problems of parking and transportation immediately. Beyond that, can we think bigger and really dig into the changes Evanston (and many other small cities) are going through to understand opportunities for the future? Office workers are not coming back to the downtown urban cores everywhere. It’s a great time to understand who the newcomers and visitors to Evanston are and what they are looking for in terms of amenities, services, and “quality of life” experiences. Long term economic development requires strategy, frameworks, and clear processes for how to engage all the different players to make a thriving place. The fact that this proposal was approved without discussion clearly shows the lack of interest in what Evanston constituents have to say about the business districts. In contrast, how many years and public hearings does it take to get a skate park approved? I sincerely hope the city with the help of the same consultants they have worked with over the years are not just going to gather feedback from surveys to check some boxes so they can get on with what they want to do without public discussion or financial oversight. We want to make sure we can see some KPI’s to measure revenue and assess how this project drives growth.

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