Quantcast

Research Park: High vacancies but high hopes from developers

Evanston’s Plan Commission is trying to figure out how to deal with the north end of Research Park.

The two-block stretch from East Railroad Avenue east to Maple Avenue between Emerson Street and University Place has office buildings with high vacancy rates and proposals from developers for new projects that would break through existing zoning limits.

Evanston’s Plan Commission is trying to figure out how to deal with the north end of Research Park.

The two-block stretch from East Railroad Avenue east to Maple Avenue between Emerson Street and University Place has office buildings with high vacancy rates and proposals from developers for new projects that would break through existing zoning limits.

Plan Commissioner Lawrence Widmayer, a commercial real estate broker, said at a commission meeting today that the office buildings in the area average a 31 percent vacancy rate.

By comparison, he said, the rest of downtown Evanston has an 11.9 percent office vacancy rate, lower even than the 16 to 17 percent office vacancy rate in Chicago’s Loop.

“Generally it’s Class B office space at a Class A price,” Mr. Widmayer said, noting that the buildings face higher real estate taxes than elsewhere in downtown because of terms of the original Research Park development agreement.

“So the customers are going to 1603 Orrington or the Rotary Building, which are much more attractive,” he added.

Plan Commissioner Alice Rebechini noted that the Research Park buildings were constructed without on-site parking and instead have leased parking in the Maple Avenue garage.

“It’s a convenience factor,” Ms. Rebechini said, “People don’t want to walk two blocks to parking – especially when they’re in what otherwise looks like a suburban office park setting.”

Developer Robert King has proposed a 19-story residential condominium project, Carroll Place, for a site at 1881 Oak Ave. that’s been vacant for two decades.

Another development team is proposing to tear down the three-story office building at 1890 Maple Ave. and replace it with a 10-story Residence Inn hotel.

The current height limit in the zoning code for both properties is 85 feet.

Several commissioners appeared to agree with Associate Plan Commissioner David Galloway who said, “I think eight to 10 stories would be the maximum height I’d find acceptable for these properties.”

Evanston Community Development Director James Wolinski said, “If we’re going to look at the highest and best use, four-story residential is not going to give us the best here. You have to go to eight to 10 stories so the city can profit from the property tax.”

The commissioners also struggled over what to do about parking for the properties – convinced that on-site parking is needed to make projects viable, but put off by the look of most above-ground parking decks and persuaded that more than a single level of underground parking is too expensive for most projects to justify.

Mr. Galloway suggested there perhaps could be an underground garage covering the entire block south of Emerson from Maple to Oak.

Commissioners also voiced concern about how to handle the north side of Emerson – which is mostly zoned R6. That zone also permits buildings 85 feet high, but except for the eight-story senior citizen apartment building at the corner of Emerson and Maple, it’s currently developed largely with two-story century-old houses and small apartment buildings.

Assistant Community Development Director Carolyn Brzezinski said there’s also a need to do something to make it easier for pedestrians on Emerson to cross its intersection with Ridge Avenue, Green Bay Road and the Metra tracks. “It’s a horrible barrier now,” she said.

“With development starting to occur west of Green Bay, making that connection becomes very important,” Plan Commissioner James Woods said.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, whose 2nd Ward includes the Research Park area, said, “We have to demand that aesthetics be part of what goes into the mix. People walking from Ridge to the train, or from Asbury and Emerson, that experience coming up Emerson is isolating because not much is going on. We have to try to encourage development of things that are pleasing.”

He added, “I agree we may not need to go as high as the proposed (Carroll Place) project. But the revenue side is extremely important as we push toward stabilizing the city’s revenue bases and limiting property tax increases.”

But Commissioner Galloway said, “I think 10 or 12 stories might be too high. What I’ve seen far too often is ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ from the developers but no creative solutions, no give-backs, for the city.”

The commissioners also discussed trading larger setbacks from the street for greater building height and whether street-level retail uses should be encouraged along Emerson.

The commission meets again on the Research Park issue at 8 a.m., Wednesday, March 1, and plans to review the zoning plan for the entire downtown area this year.

Editors’ Picks