It's not difficult to find signs like this one downtown.

It may take three to five years for a “space realignment’ to take place in downtown Evanston, as businesses both recover and change their model of operation coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the city’s Economic Development manager.

Responding to a series of questions from Evanston Now, Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development chief, says downtown office vacancy rates are currently 2.5 times higher than before the pandemic hit in March, 2020.

According to a report from the analysis firm CoStar, the vacancy rate is presently 14.9%, or 299,000 square feet.

Zalmezak says that is “not alarming,” but he is still feeling “cautious” about a recovery.

On the positive side, the economic development manager says he is “hearing that May/June will be a significant return to work” period, “at least in a hybrid format.”

However, that does not necessarily mean empty offices will completely fill up soon, or perhaps even over the long term.

Zalmezak says the city has been predicting a trend where “companies may be realigning space needs with new hybrid models/realities,” so vacancy rates might actually keep climbing “as companies decrease the number of staff on site on a daily basis.”

There is a chance, Zalmezak notes, that small companies may look to relocate here if larger businesses opt to move to downtown Chicago, opening up space in Evanston buildings.

The CoStar report puts Evanston’s downtown office market rental rate at $32.63 per square foot, basically unchanged over the last year.

“Evanston has always been a small office/small business community,” Zalmezak notes, meaning companies with about 25 employees or less, needing up to 5,000 square feet of offices.

Zalmezak says the city needs to view this “space realignment” through a long-term lens of from three to five years.

“Is this a pessmistic view?” Zalmezak asks.

“I’m not sure,” he says. “I believe it’s realistic.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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