“We’re going to be OK in 18 months — but it doesn’t feel good today.”
That’s the prediction Paul Zalmezak, Evanston’s economic development manager, made to the city’s Economic Development Committee Wednesday night.
Zalmezak presented charts with data from CoStar Group indicating that at the end of last year 10% of downtown Evanston’s 1.42 million square feet of retail space was vacant and 10.7% was available for lease.
The distinction between those two terms is that space can be vacant while still under lease, and space can be available while still occupied by a tenant whose lease is about to expire.
While the retail vacancy rate is still higher than it was pre-pandemic, it has dropped three percentage points from its pandemic peak.
The vacancy rate for downtown Evanston’s nearly 2.1 million square feet of office space is now down to 11%, while the availability rate is 16.1%.
That means the office vacancy rate is now below its peak from the early part of the last decade — but still above the level later in that decade that drew developers to propose major new office buildings here.
The vacancy rate decline appears to be in line with increasing return-to-office figures in Chicago and other major cities — but those occupancy levels are still only at roughly half the pre-pandemic figures.
Zalmezak said that assuming vacancy rates continue to decline, he anticipates seeing new movement toward construction of the City Council-approved office tower at 605 Davis St. in the near future.
Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) said it appears Evanston is faring pretty well in comparison to other places — but the city is still struggling with COVID-19 and its ramifications.
“Some really cool things are coming in the next few months,” Burns said, after Zalmezak described some of the new retail businesses that have leased now-vacant storefronts.
Ald. Devon Reid (8th) said the city needs to exert more control over what opens in downtown and look at the zoning code to avoid trading retail businesses like Barnes & Noble that draw a lot of foot traffic, for lower impact office uses — like the medical office use that took over the bookstore.
But Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said the city already has the power to influence that through its special use approval process.
Nieuwsma said a couple of applications are currently pending for convenience stores downtown — and he’s opposed to adding any more such uses in the downtown district and would not support their special use requests.
One concern for several committee members is the plan announced last month to renovate the Old Orchard mall in Skokie over the next few years to include residential uses.
“They’re building residential development — a downtown Evanston — on what’s now a parking lot,” Zalmezak said. “This isn’t going to ruin our downtown, but it will be highly competitive and make it difficult for us to reinvent downtown.”
Reid said the mall “feels like a safe place to take kids and not worry about a car popping out of somewhere.” He suggested Evanston needs to close some streets to create pedestrian-friendly areas.
But Nieuwsma said closing streets has been tried before in a lot of other downtowns — generally without much success.
Zalmezak said a consultant’s report on how to improve downtown and the city’s other business districts is scheduled to be presented to City Council late next month.
Old orchard may be charging more in taxes – but there aren’t the drugged out panhandlers to deal with and parking is free. For the people that already walk in downtown Evanston due to living here – we will generally continue to shop where it’s convenient and safe and pleasant. But Evanston will not attract shoppers from elsewhere (yet). The new theaters will certainly help Evanston.
But – keep in mind that Evanston is super expensive. Our property tax rate is higher than most every other place in the USA and we don’t get much for it. Time to give back to the tax payers.
Paul Zalmezak: “We’re going to be OK in 18 months — but it doesn’t feel good today.”
Let’s hope he is right.
Please no more bubble tea shops, poke bowl shops, or nail salons, as these do not make Evanston a destination for shopping, eating, or entertaining.
Old Orchard’s damage to Evanston was already done many years ago, and stands to get even worse with the innovative plans they have. Old Orchard isn’t just safe for kids it is safe for ALL – no panhandlers, rare instances of crime, and so many people there continuously that it helps keep the criminals away.
Considering how many residents live in or near downtown, it is amazing we can’t attract and retain more businesses. Many of our residents must be spending their money elsewhere.
Hopefully the consultants’ report will identify what is wrong with Evanston, and the City Council will be smart enough to do something about it.
The “damage” done by Old Orchard was not just competition for retail and sharing of demand, but more-so Evanston’s decision to bomb out its downtown to try to reverse those trends and compete with a suburban shopping center (not that this response was unique, it was done all across the country). That loss of traditional human-scaled fabric is still being felt today. Initially it was replaced with surface parking lots and later parking garages and new developments with high rent structures and less adaptable retail spaces that small businesses occupy. Unfortunately we continue this trend today as many development proposals both approved and not approved are largely auto-centered and leave little room for visual interest, vibrancy, and pedestrian comfort. Even some of the “better” new developments in downtown are not what the City deserves. Ironically, what Old Orchard is doing now is trying in many ways to create what Evanston already had up to the 1950s, a dense, mixed-use core of visually interesting buildings and an environment that was comfortable for humans, not cars. Downtown is definitely fixable but it takes a change in priorities and revisiting our past in order to create a better future.
The answer is more market-rate housing in downtown Evanston. More people means more customers for restaurants and stores, more eyes on the street, and a lively community. I’m guessing the residential vacancy rate for downtown is zero . People want to live here, so why does the city council keep approving downtown office buildings and delaying residential development, sometimes for years? Most cities have realized that with work from home trends, it’s time to do the opposite. I propose that the council be required to approve a for-profit residential housing project every time it approves a homeless shelter or invests over $1M of the city’s money on affordable housing. That should move things along a lot faster.
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