Local Evanston businesses speak on the skyscraper controversy
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  • The portion of Sherman Avenue that the theater would displace. Photo by Gabrielle Bienasz / North by Northwestern
  • The Saville Flower shop, which has been in that building since 1942. Photo by Gabrielle Bienasz / North by Northwestern
  • The alley bookstore, Bookends & Beginnings, which has been a bookstore since the 1980s. Its original name was Bookman’s Alley. Photo by Gabrielle Bienasz / North by Northwestern
  • Nina Barrett, the bookstore owner, often handwrites descriptions of books around the shop. Photo by Gabrielle Bienasz / North by Northwestern
  • The Alley Gallery, which is across the alley from the bookstore. It has been here since the mid-1980s. Photo by Gabrielle Bienasz / North by Northwestern
  • Darren Oberto, owner of the Alley Gallery, working on a custom frame for a client. Photo by Gabrielle Bienasz / North by Northwestern

All throughout homecoming weekend, campus was swarmed with purple-clad alumni. Many alumni looked at all of the construction Northwestern has done and is doing with incredulity, trying to juxtapose these new memories onto their old ones.

Future generations of alumni will no doubt continue this practice, but as explored in the first piece of this series, this wide-eyed wonder might be outmatched by the changes that could be coming Northwestern’s hometown, Evanston.

Since the first story in this series was published, details about the status of the project – specifically the tower build which developers aim to construct on the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue – have emerged.

Thus far, the plans for this development have been submitted only as a concept in a ward meeting held by 1st ward Alderman Judy Fiske in early September, according to Johanna Leonard, Evanston’s Director of Community Development.

“There’s a lot of things that will change between when they’re presented as concepts to when they come to the formal approval and review process,” Leonard said.

Due to the scope and style of the project, the developers will also be required to provide a number of public service developments, Leonard said.

Leonard says the ongoing conflict with the local businesses is something that the City Council will have to consider in the review process. The size of the project will require two-thirds of the vote on the City Council to win a bid for building.

Northlight Theatre, which is proposed to be one of the main attractions of the tower (among hotel, retail, apartment, and parking space), says that theater space in Evanston would be a “homecoming,” as well. Northlight theater was founded in Evanston in 1974.

“A third of our subscribers and our audience, frankly, are Evanstonians, and they have been asking us for many years, ‘When are you coming home?’” executive director for Northlight Tim Evans said.

The theater’s main draws for Evanston residents are its ability to stimulate the economy, provide a focal point for the community and create a vibrant arts center.

“We want it to be a community space that we’d be able to use not just for theater, but for community organizations, educational organizations and other nonprofits. Evans said. “There’s no real gathering place in downtown Evanston.”

According to Northlight, the theater would bring in major economic gains for the city in the form of 200 full and part-time jobs per year, over $350,000 in new city taxes in the first year alone and over $100 million in spending over the next 10 years.

But for the small businesses facing displacement, the economic benefits are not as straightforward as they seem.

“What we have here right now is a bunch of these little businesses that people are walking into and out of all day. It encourages pedestrian traffic out there all the time.” said Nina Barrett, owner of Bookends & Beginnings. “People need a reason to be out on the street.”

Barrett’s bookstore is one of the businesses facing displacement in the current concept for Northlight’s return to Evanston.

Barrett contends that while the theater would bring additional patrons downtown, that effect is limited to the evenings, when shows generally run: “For the whole rest of the day [the theater] is just a wall,” Barrett said.

Without this daytime engagement, Barrett said, “the community disintegrates.”

To counter this point, Northlight has already established social programs they intend to bring to Evanston. They have instituted programs such as the Theater for Social Change, which has run in partnership with Evanston Township High School; they have worked with Youth & Opportunity United Evanston, the Y Women’s Club of America Evanston and District 55 schools.

“All of those are currently existing programs that we’d hope to expand, and if we were in Evanston, be able to work even more with more different organizations largely through our education programming,” Evans said.

Not all community members believe that the concept of keeping small businesses while allowing for growth and progress need be mutually exclusive, but the problem centralizes on the location for development.

Mark Jones, owner of Saville Flowers, one of the stores facing demolition on under the current concept for Northlight’s return, says that he welcomes the theater but wishes it would develop a different space, one that is not currently being used.

“It’s going to be a great drawing point– you know, I’m young; I love modern spaces, and I love trendy restaurants cool bars and nice theater performances,” said Jones. “I just, I don’t see why it has to go in two architecturally significant buildings when there are so many other unutilized spaces.”

Jones is talking about the Varsity Theatre and the flower shop itself. The Varsity is a former moviehouse, but both the city and Northlight have declared it unusable as a performance space.

Saville Flowers has been in its current building since 1942, making it a cornerstone of that block of Sherman Avenue.

“We have had some clients for 30 years,” Jones said. “You do their weddings, you do the birth of their children, you do the death of their parents, you do their kids birthday parties, their anniversaries ... It’s such a tie for so many customers to know that Saville is here.”

Jones said that even though many of his longtime customers are local Evanston residents, NU students have a stake in the plans for the skyscraper as well.

“Our little corner here is really the only pocket within walking distance to Northwestern with small businesses that are thriving and working,” Jones said. “Otherwise, [downtown Evanston] is just going to be a food court.”

Additionally, many students see therapists who practice in the office space between Starbucks and CouCou & Olive, according to Carrie Stelnicki, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who runs her own practice in the building.

“Students tell me, ‘I love how I can roll out of bed and be here in five minutes,’” said Stelnicki. Her practice, along with the other businesses in the building, would also be forced to move.

The local retail on this block — for various reasons, ranging from low-cost rent in the alley to the availability of workable spaces downtown — has said that there is little chance their stores will be able to thrive in other parts in Evanston.

“What we have here is really priceless, and what we have here is really unique, and it’s very charming, and it’s not something that’s going to be easily duplicated elsewhere,” Jones said.

When Northlight Theatre director was asked about his opinion on the businesses that would be displaced in the current idea, he said that the responsibility for choosing the location is up to the developers. They did not respond to requests for comment.

“Look, change is hard for everybody,” Evans said.

Despite the fervor that has risen over this dispute, the development has a long way to go, no matter what location the developers choose to  build in. But, it’s possible that by a college reunion that seems ages away for current students, Evanston will have a new look.


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