The long-running problems with high vacancy rates at the Evanston Plaza Shopping Center don’t appear to be any closer to solution after a neighborhood meeting Tuesday night.
Len Richards of Foresite Realty.
About 80 residents gathered at the Heartwood Center nearby were told that TJX Companies, Inc. has rebuffed efforts by city officials and the court-appointed receiver for the shopping center at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue to persuade TJX to replace the soon-to-close AJ Wright store with another TJX-owned chain, HomeGoods.
Len Richards, who manages the plaza for receiver Forsite Realty, said TJX officials say the company isn’t expanding the HomeGoods chain now, because of the poor state of the housing market.
"Sales at the AJ Wright store here were good," Richards said, "but they just erased the whole brand."
That means an additional 38,000 square foot space in the center will soon go dark.
Richards said he’s unable to rent to some types of businesses that neighbors have asked for — like a gym, theater or bowling alley — because of restrictions in the lease agreement with the center’s largest tenant, a Dominick’s food store.
Neighbors gathered for the meeting at the Heartwood Center.
Dominicks, like other grocery chains, he said, "is very covetous of parking" and won’t permit a use in the center that would have people stay for two hours or more, tying up parking spaces.
"So we’re looking for the sort of traditional retail uses that are allowed," Richards added, like clothing, sporting goods and shoe stores, with an emphasis on national discount brands.
Richards said the firm gets about eight serious inquiries a month about leasing space in the plaza and has also been talking to potential medical clinic tenants.
Nancy Radzevich, the city’s new community development manager, said the city wants to be a more pro-active partner with Foresite, trying to stimulate existing businesses at the plaza as well as find new ones.
Nancy Radzevich, Evanston’s economic development manager.
"I don’t want to say its going to happen overnight, but it’s definitely a priority for the city," she said.
Asked about a proposal from State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg to locate a new state unemployment office at the plaza in combination with a new branch library, Richards said, "I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole" because the state has failed to make lease payments on many other properties it rents.
He added that any new tenants have to be approved by both Joseph Freed Associates, which still owns the property, and the lenders suing to foreclose on the plaza, and they both are interested in increasing the property’s value — which makes it highly unlikely that they would, for example, donate space for a new library branch.
Richards said that the bankrupcty court process is likely to conclude within 90 to 180 days — either with Freed regaining control of the property or the bank foreclosing and putting it up for sale.
He said Foresite, as the court-appointed receiver, is not in a position to bid on the property if it does go up for sale.
Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, whose 2nd Ward includes the plaza site, said one solution may be for residents to organize themselves ant talk to Dominicks about the parking restrictions.
"We may need to impress on them that they could benefit more from getting other uses into the plaza," he added.