A new tenant moving to the 1603 Orrington office tower won support from the Land Use Commission Wednesday night to install illuminated signs atop Evanston’s tallest building.

Two new divisions of the organization formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories — UL Research Institutes and UL Standards & Engagement — both now headquartered on the main UL Solutions campus at 333 Pfingsten Road in Northbrook — are seeking to lease roughly 53,000 square feet on the top floors of the 300,000 square foot building.

Steve DeGodny.

Steve DeGodny, vice-president for leasing at building owner Golub & Company, says the building had just a 6% vacancy rate, including sublease space, in 2019.

“But then COVID happened,” he added, “and everyone was affected. Companies defaulted on leases, downsized and switched to remote work.”

DeGodny said the tower now has a 33% vacancy rate and leases on another third of the space “are rolling over during the next three years.”

He added that given the relatively small size of the Evanston office market, “it is extremely rare to see a 50,000 square foot tenant come into this market and lease one block of space.”

Terry Brady

Terry Brady, CEO of UL, said he’s a fourth-generation Evanstonian who opened his first checking account 50 years ago in the rotunda of the then State National Bank building.

Brady said the research work of the two UL groups would be enhanced by being close to the Northwestern University campus and that the location would appeal to young researchers who prefer using public transportation and who — if they don’t have cars — have a hard time getting to the current site in Northbrook.

The plans call for logotype signs on the north and south faces of the building — each 200 square feet in size — the north sign with the green color of the UL Standards & Engagement, the south sign with the blue color of UL Research Institutes.

Renderings showing an aerial view of the proposed sign on the north face of the building during the day and at night.

The LED lights in the signs would be on dimmer controls and would only be illuminated until 11 p.m.

The plans require several variations from the city’s sign code, which, among other things, only offers approval by right for tall-building identification signs when the building tenant occupies the entire building above the first floor.

A rendering showing the proposed monument sign on the building’s plaza.

Zoning Administrator Melissa Klotz told the commission that staff had received 27 letters favoring the proposal and 10 opposed.

The only public comment at the meeting came from former Preservation Commission member Jack Weiss, who said he had co-authored the city’s original sign ordinance decades ago.

Weiss said the Land Use Commission was “not well-equipped to address signage proposals” and said UL’s requests were excessive, asking nearly twice what’s permitted.

But Commissioner George Halik said he believed the signage proposal was reasonable.

“The site is one of the largest in Evanston,” Halik said, so the size of the signage in relation to the scale of the building is appropriate.

And UL has “a great logo,” he added. “It’s handsome and doesn’t scream at you,” suggesting that if the signs proposed for the top of the building had included lettering identifying the names of the divisions “I would have a totally different reaction.”

The only vote against the proposal was cast by Commissioner Kristine Westerberg, who said “tenant signage at this level is unprecedented for Evanston.”

But Commissioner Max Puchtel, while agreeing that it is unprecedented, said it would be a change for the better.

He disagreed with letters submitted opposing the plan that said the signs would give the city a “corporate” feel.

This isn’t the same as having “Visa” on top of the building, Puchtel said. UL, he suggested, would add a technological, professional feel to the building and enhance the image of Evanston.

The sign request now goes to the City Council for a final decision.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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5 Comments

  1. As much as I don’t like to see the downtown area look like downtown Chicago, if that is what it takes to bring a company of that size, I am all for it. Evanston needs this.

  2. We should be doing hand flips with this news. A solid company with deep north shore roots setting up in an iconic downtown office building is something that would make other towns envious. The UL logo on the building will be a needed symbol of vibrancy to our ailing CBD. This is a time to be creative. The trade-off of allowing the sign will be the presence of numerous tech jobs and employees in our downtown.

  3. Let’m put the stinking sign up—-easy trade off for something Evanston desperately needs—-actually looks kinda cool

  4. The city has always had a ridiculous sign ordinance and thankfully that has been changing over the years. Small business wanting a simple blade sign had to jump through hoops to put up such a standard and simple piece of signage. Commissions like the Preservation and Signage Police have always had this archaic notion of what is appropriate. The movie theater was thankfully given variance even though many considered that “excessive” and would ruin downtown. Glad to see the continued move towards reason continue. It’s good that downtown Evanston can begin to look more “corporate” and that certain peoples quaint idea and overbearing influence of what they feel is appropriate continues to diminish.

  5. This is a proposal with obvious economic development benefits that outweigh other concerns. In response to the comment above this, Evanstons historic preservation efforts have been admirable and are widely lauded. We owe a great debt to those who came before in the 70s and 80s to identify and preserve our significant built heritage which in many ways still embody what most see as Evanston’s identity. I do not believe these efforts to be archaic in any way and don’t really see how that comment is related to this proposal although it is a building deserving of celebration and likely preservation, being designed by George Schipporeit.

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