In the wake of pulling plans for a 37-story downtown tower with a new theater at its base, Northlight Theatre Executive Director Tim Evans says the city’s leaders need to decide what their vision of the future for Evanston is.

In an interview with Evanston Now, Evans noted that there’s not a lot of empty space anywhere in Evanston.

“If we want to grow, or have more affordable housing, or more business downtown, the only way to go is up,” he said, “but the unanswered question is how far up is too far.”

Northlight, along with Farpoint Development and McLaurin Development, announced late Thursday that they were withdrawing plans for the tower before even submitting it to the city’s formal review process.
A rendering of the now-withdrawn proposed theater development.

“We always said we wanted to go out and listen before submitting plans to the city,” Evans said. “We heard a lot of support, and a lot of concerns, and felt that to move forward was going to be tough.”

“We have no interest in being in the middle of a community battle about the vision for downtown,” Evans added.

Many speakers who turned out for community meetings said they’d love to have Northlight return to Evanston from Skokie, but hated the idea of the tower.

But Evans said Northlight doesn’t have the financial resources to build a new theater on its own. (It would have been a tenant in the new building under the now-withdrawn proposal and would have only needed to raise funds to build out the interior of the space.)

“We’re a mid-size theater company,” Evans said, and “raising the $40 million to $45 million to build and equip a new space on our own — I think that’s an impossibility.”

Evans said Northlight might be able to adapt a suitable existing space for theater use — but nothing suitable appears to be available downtown.

“We’re working with city staff and some real estate professionals to identify other potential locations downtown,” Evans said. “And we’ll keep Skokie on our radar as an option, and other communities. But we don’t want to stray too far from our base of supporters and patrons. That’s why Evanston has been an important place for us to look to return to.”

As for the now-dropped proposed site in the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue, Evans said, “Those landowners are clearly interest in selling. But what happens to that block in the next four to five years, I don’t know.”

Evans said the controvery over the new theater site doesn’t seem to have had any impact of Northlight’s community support. “Everybody, including many of the people opposed to the building, seems to want to have Northlight back. We’re going to run with that and see if we can make that happen.”

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Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. I can tell you what we don’t want!

    “Evanston’s Economic Development Committee will be asked Wednesday to approve plans to explore creation of a new government entity to fund the proposed Northlight Theatre development downtown.” (Full story)

    Even though this did not go through and Northlight was not asking for funding from the city, I do not trust any politician to remain true to their word once the project gets going and it’s too late to turn back.

    I was for the project until I read that story. I hope you do not ask money from the city in future exploration (although it will be more challenging without this building to be sure).

  2. It’s true, though, that there needs to be a plan, a vision

    Whatever one feels about this particular development the thing is that our city council is lacking a vision and a plan for development. It seems like every time there’s a proposal we go through the same discussions. What are developers to aim for? What, in fact, is it that we want? What is the long range plan for what Evanston should become, for what we, as a community, would like to see it develop into? Without a sense of that we’re going to have what seems like a whack-a-mole approach to development.

    1. 2 sides to every coin
      That’s because there are always two factions going on: those who want to keep Evanston as the quaint/homey town it always USED to be, and those who want it to be a high-rise infested hub of businesses, parking issues, etc….. You are totally hitting it on the head. Every time there is a discussion, there is flak from both sides, flipping back and forth, and a lot of angry residents speaking out. Tough calls to make, and you certainly can’t please everyone….and usually they all have very valid points.

    2. Rules already exist
      I though Evanston already has a master plan for the dowtown area [and concentric residential rings] when it comes to heights/sizes/parking ratios/setbacks/etc.? Developers are free to ask for variances on those rules but the basic guidelines are in place already are they not? What am I missing?

      1. Downtown plan

        Hi Racer,

        Yes, the city has a 2009 downtown plan, but the zoning changes to implement it were never adopted.

        The plan was approved just before the 2009 election. Changes in who was on the council after the election — and perhaps some second thoughts by some of the re-elected aldermen — have led to a situation in which there has never since been a council majority to implement the plan in the zoning code.

        The existing zoning code provides a lot of flexibility for developers to ask for more than its basic limits — and varying outcomes for different developer requests have made it hard to predict how the next one will fare.

        It also should be mentioned that every project is different and has it’s own pluses and minuses — so being too rigid in the rules wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. Some flexibility is needed.

        — Bill

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