World

Nowhere to go but up

PoliticsPropertyState BudgetsProperty TaxRetirementHomesJobs and Workplace

Alex Piper and her husband, Jonathan, moved to Evanston four years ago for the same reasons many young families do: good schools, cozy neighborhoods, a short walk to a Lake Michigan beach, a fast commute to downtown Chicago.

"It was," she remembers, "an amazing combination of vintage homes, wonderful neighborhoods and city convenience."

It still is. Only now when she looks out the kitchen window of her storybook Italianate-Victorian late in the day, Piper sees not the sun's fading light through elms and lindens, but the red glow of "Chicago's Discount Cleaner." Beyond, above the new laundry's electric sign, rises the seven-story Chicago Avenue Place. It's one of Evanston's many, many new condo complexes, a place where two-bedroom, two-bath units with lake views sell for $355,000 plus the $375.58 monthly maintenance fee that includes health-club privileges and a heated garage.

The dizzying pace of commercial and residential development is part of the sturm und drang roiling this half city, half suburb--the town Daniel Burnham once called "a place distinct." The turn-of-the-century architect-businessman laid out modern Chicago, but he chose to live in Evanston.

Burnham was a civic activist with firm beliefs, and the trait endures among today's Evanstonians. In a bygone era, the issues were abolition, temperance and women's suffrage. Now the place is a hotbed of political and racial correctness, left-of-center politics and nuclear-free zones. The City Council, a debating society whose evening meetings often stretch into the wee hours, was among the first to declare against the war in Iraq. But what really galvanizes residents--what fills their interminable public hearings and the letters-to-the-editor columns in the weekly Review and RoundTable--is a fight over what the town ought to look like, and, by implication, what it ought to be.

The battle is being fought on several fronts: Will Northwestern University ever pay its "fair share" of taxes and stop its westward push into the neighborhood? Are Streetwise vendors from the homeless shelter scaring shoppers away from downtown stores? Are the public schools doing enough to narrow the white/black performance gap?

The main heat nowadays, however, radiates from a single source: Evanston's red-hot real estate market. Not since Dr. John Evans and his Methodist deacons put $1,000 down on Foster's farm, 15 miles north of what would become the Loop, has there been so wild a land rush. Which is remarkable, considering the 140-year-old town has been built solid, border-to-border, for at least 50 years.

And that's the problem: This is no Naperville, with room to grow. For every new condo tower or townhouse complex, something has to go. And not just old buildings. Many fear it's Old Evanston itself on the block. Old Evanston, with its racially diverse--though not exactly integrated--population; its neighborly scale and North Shore decorum. Old Evanston that is now on the verge of becoming . . . what? . . . another New Town or Wrigleyville?

That's a stretch, but there's no question that the back-to-the-city craze, the historic shift in tastes and lifestyles that has recast Chicago's North Side into a tres hip place to live and begun to remake the city's South and West Sides, is invading Evanston's shady streets. And a lot of people there--including a lot of smart, articulate people--do not like it one bit.

"Chunk by chunk, this city's unique quality is being chewed up," complained Ann Dienner in a recent letter to the RoundTable. Born and raised in Evanston, the octogenarian is a pillar of the Woman's Club of Evanston, as was her mother. She remembers after-school sodas at long-gone Cooley's Cupboard on Orrington Avenue and tea service at the old Dominion Room on Davis Street. The latter is now a seafood bar where diners can savor blackened Atlantic swordfish or wash down steamed mussels in basil broth with bottled micro-brews.

"Hasn't Evanston," pleaded Dienner, "been subject to more than enough 'development' [and] 'tax enhancing' exploitation?"

Probably not. A strong argument can be made that Evanston is only beginning to play catch-up. The town's population, measured at 74,239 by the 2000 Census, is only now edging back to the 80,000 who lived here during the 1960s, before a new crop of suburbs sprung up along the interstates, not the railroad tracks.

The new wave of yuppies, gay couples and affluent empty-nesters also is bolstering the city's delicate racial balance. That balance is a remarkable achievement for any inner-ring suburb in the post-World War II era, especially since Evanston's white population declined by some 20,000 over the previous four decades as the number of African-Americans nearly doubled. Today's 67-24 percent white/black split appears within progressive Evanston's comfort range, though the white number now includes 4,500 Spanish-speakers. A more worrisome barometer of balance is the percentage mix inside Evanston's public elementary schools: 39/43/12/4, as in white/black/Hispanic/Asian.

Several factors are behind a decline in non-Hispanic white enrollment, but one key is that more white parents are opting to send their children to less diverse private and parochial schools. This is not a healthy trend, either for the schools or for Evanston, relying as it does on the willingness of affluent whites to pay steep private tuition bills in addition to some of the highest property taxes--roughly $9 per $100 of assessed valuation--in the Chicago region. There's a strong temptation to move, say, to Glenview, where school test scores are higher and homeowners pay only $7 per $100.

Evanston property taxes are high for several reasons, but a big one is that, until recently, the city's tax base was being starved of new, taxable development.

Little wonder, then, that there is a considerable "Bring it on!" faction in the dust-up over growth. Indeed, the mayor and the City Council have been actively priming the pump: wheeling and dealing with developers; setting up tax breaks for new projects; reinventing the stalled Evanston-Northwestern Research Park, which wasn't growing, into a condo/cinema/shopping/dining extravaganza that decidedly is.

"Evanston is Lincoln Park, but with parking," quips James Klutznick, son of the late and legendary real estate developer Philip Klutznick. His father was a genius at anticipating change, and during the 1960s and '70s he surrounded Chicago with a new concept in real estate called the regional shopping mall. But the prototype, Old Orchard in Skokie, sucked the life, not to mention the sales taxes, out of Evanston's old-fashioned downtown. Marshall Field's, Sears Roebuck, Lyttons, Baskins, Rothschilds, Smythe furniture--all left Evanston, sooner or later, after Old Orchard opened for business in 1956.

"I'm here to atone for the sins of my father," jokes Klutznick, whose Sherman Plaza recently won approval from an Evanston City Council committee. The $100 million mixed-use development is slated to rise over Fountain Square, the traditional heart of old downtown. It won't be any Water Tower Place, his late father's Michigan Avenue landmark, but with 253 luxury condos, 155,000 square feet of stores and a flashy health club, the project is sure to create more excitement at Davis street and Sherman Avenue than the branch bank that had deadened that intersection, or the dingy five-and-dime around the corner.

The remarkable thing about Sherman Plaza, though, is that, by New Evanston standards, it's not that big a deal. Everywhere one looks, from the Wilmette border on the north, where National-Louis University has put up for sale its Sheridan Road campus, to the Howard Street border with Chicago on the south, where Bristol Chicago Development plans a 221-apartment high-rise, Evanston is growing like gangbusters.

Counting only those projects that have been built and occupied, the city calculates that its gains since 1997 include 27 percent more businesses, 12 percent more retail sales, more than half a billion dollars invested downtown and a commensurate increase in the property tax base in this year's triennial reassessment, which will produce millions in new tax revenues for schools and other units of local government.

And the building boom shows no signs of letting up. All along the Chicago Avenue commercial spine (the northernmost reach of Chicago's Clark Street), residential developers are measuring the few remaining auto dealerships to see how many condos can be stacked and shoehorned under existing zoning. It may seem an unlikely candidate to be the next Wilshire Boulevard, but consider this: The hottest trend nationally in real estate--hot even before a gallon of unleaded regular hit $2.29--is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. All 15 blocks of Chicago Avenue are adjacent to, or a short walk from, a total of four CTA and two Metra train stations.

Even on Evanston's prosaic west side, in the predominantly African-American 5th Ward, developers have begun to snap up obsolete warehouses and light industrial buildings, gutting their interiors, preserving fancy exterior brickwork and arching hardwood trusses, installing skylights for work/live lofts. Long-abandoned creameries and vacant machine shops now provide cut-rent space for young entrepreneurs who are busy creating corporate Web sites, four-color marketing brochures for the Ravinia Festival and room-sized objets d'art. Even Fanny's World Famous Restaurant, the Simpson Street spaghetti house where the late Mrs. Lazzar greeted customers effusively (while slyly sending the coat-and-ties downstairs and the hoi polloi upstairs) is being converted into a coffee shop/art gallery with lofts and a rooftop deck.

Some might think all this is an unalloyed blessing, given Evanston's economic decline in the '70s and '80s. Its historic ban on alcohol, until it was lifted in 1972, squelched any chance of fine dining or nightlife. And just as Old Orchard filched its stores, distant suburban office parks chipped away at the town's manufacturing base. (Yes, Evanston had factories. It was never a Gary, but it once supplied the world with Rust-Oleum paints, Shure phonograph cartridges, Tinkertoys and a variety of electro-mechanical gadgets, from Pelouze postal scales to Sentinel radios.)

Perhaps that's why many black residents, whose parents worked in the now-closed plants, are wary of the changes taking place in their neighborhoods, just as Alex Piper and Ann Dienner are leery of what's happening on the east side of town. Predictably, a Chicago-style anti-gentrification movement has taken root, led informally by 5th Ward Ald. Joseph Kent.

"If you're talking luxury condos," says Kent, "then once the development starts, it will be over for a lot of people who can't afford to fit in." Last year, Kent called for, and got, a 120-day moratorium on new construction in his ward, Evanston's poorest.

At a City Council session in May, Kent put on a 40-minute show of rhetorical resistance, convincing the council to table a city appropriation of $30,000 for curbside parking improvements in his own ward. The diagonal- parking plan would have produced 10 additional spaces at the scruffy corner of Church and Darrow Streets-spaces sought by the high-tech tenants of a newly rehabbed industrial building that had been abandoned.

"These lofts employ people," protested Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste of the adjacent 2nd Ward. "They reuse vacant buildings. There are tax benefits to us all."

"So the building was abandoned, so what?" Kent rejoined. "It's not the end of the 5th Ward [if the appropriation is delayed]. All I want to do is table this so the residents can have a voice."

The developer behind the parking improvement, Renaissance Realty, argues that it uses black tradesmen as subcontractors and has recruited, with some success, black-owned firms as tenants. "The naysayers need to take a deep breath and start asking what they can do to help," says Mary McAuley, who runs Renaissance with partner Jon Leineweber. "I don't think the answer is to keep blighted buildings blighted. We haven't displaced a single person in west Evanston. But some people think if we just keep going to meetings, if we just keep waiting until we reach some kind of consensus, then we'll all get something done. Well, we won't and we don't."

West Evanston's race-tinged gentrification dilemma is a sideshow, however, compared to the high dudgeon over new developments downtown and along Chicago Avenue.

Some say it all started with the orange railings. Four years ago, after letter writers and public-hearing regulars quieted down about downtown's new, and successful, 18-screen theater complex, concerned citizens looked up and saw the balcony banisters-all 105 sets of them, painted a cheeky burnt orange-on the new condo tower at Sherman and Davis. Outrage!

Had they looked closer, curbside critics also might have noticed the asymmetric, lighter-than-air details that have won architect David Hovey national acclaim as a master of the residential high-rise. What they did notice, last year, were the off-yellow railings on Hovey's second Evanston tower, a 28-story knife's edge of green glass and cream concrete across Maple Street from the new movie theaters. More outrage.

Next time, concerned citizens were prepared. After it was reported that Hovey's Optima Inc. planned a 36-story affair at the north end of downtown, a network of citizens concerned about height and density sprang into action.

"I drove to the Planning Commission that night and couldn't find a parking spot," Hovey recalls. "People testified against us for three hours."

A quiet, unassuming sort, Hovey retreated to his Glencoe studio and repackaged the 248-condo building to fit the site's existing zoning envelope. The result: a block-long, 16-story building with a rectangular mass not even Hovey can minimize.

"This is tragedy," says John Macsai, emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "It would have been an Eiffel Tower with an open park at its base. Now it will be a wall. It was an emotional attack [by opponents] on Hovey."

Macsai, who lives in an older condo building at the south edge of Evanston's downtown, once authored a definitive book on residential high-rises. More recently he designed Evanston Place, a graceful, red-brick condo block that neatly hides a city-owned parking deck on Chicago Avenue. In retirement he gives advice to city officials and to private developers, and pens an occasional column on local design for the RoundTable.

"Many people in Evanston," he says, "don't want to accept that this is not a horse-and-buggy suburb anymore. It's a city and it needs to grow. But where can it grow? That's the issue. "

In his own neighborhood, Macsai thinks it's silly that citizens want to preserve The Georgian, a tired, yellow-brick retirement hotel that he believes is lacking in landmark qualifications. "They want to save it because 'it's been there,' " he says. "They went to a dance there. Their mother lived there. I say tear it down and let the owner [Mather LifeWays] build a better facility, one with proper interior dimensions, not a bunch of connected hotel rooms."

As for fights over height and density, Macsai argues that Evanston needs a panel of professionals to review the appearance and impact of larger structures. Wilmette, Highland Park and Lake Forest already have mandatory, binding appearance review. He calls Evanston's current practice, which has the City Council down-zoning -- restricting the size of buildings at the request of irate neighbors -- "a democracy of the ignorant."

But Melissa Wynne, the council's most successful down-zoner, is anything but ignorant. In response to popular opposition to developments such as Chicago Avenue Place in her 3rd Ward, she has succeeded in limiting high- and mid-rise development by down-zoning most of the remaining older storefronts and car lots along Chicago Avenue. Typically, she has the properties reclassified from B-3, which allows heights up to 125 feet, to B-2, which caps them at 67 or 45 feet.

"We could have had a canyon on Chicago Avenue to the detriment of the community and to the avenue as well," she declared at a recent 3rd Ward town hall meeting.

More than a hundred residents, many of retirement age, gave up the first sunny Saturday morning of spring to share news and air gripes about changes in the neighborhood. They applauded Wynne's progress report on Chicago Avenue, but the alderman found herself defending other city development efforts against criticisms by hard-liners.

"Aren't they drawing too much water from Lake Michigan with all these new condos?" challenged one homeowner.

"How can they knock down these old buildings before they have permission to go forward with new ones?" said another. "Don't they know big holes attract mosquitoes?"

Wynne explained that water availability is not an issue and that the offending empty lot soon will be graded over. She then defended the city's use of tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, the most controversial urban pump-primer. TIFs temporarily take new property taxes within the district and reinvest them in development efforts there. Since most of those dollars would otherwise go to Evanston's cash-strapped public schools, the technique can be a hard sell.

But it was TIF financing, Wynne explained, that jump-started downtown's popular multi-screen cinema project "despite all the horror and passion and acrimony and name-calling."

Her nuanced position on development notwithstanding, Wynne has learned that down-zoning does not necessarily prevent eyesores. Consider the case of The Courts, a new townhouse complex near the south end of Chicago Avenue. The developer paid more than $5 million for the land under the old Dominick's supermarket there, apparently hoping for zoning that would allow him to build a taller complex with some green space at the base. But Ald. Wynne and her allies weren't dealing. Result: 90 three- and four-story townhouses built to the sidewalk and packed so tightly they look like courtyard buildings without the courtyards.

Wynne says she's disappointed with the development but is not about to restore more generous height limits on the avenue. She is open, however, to letting a panel of non-elected experts settle questions of design compatibility, even though, she says, "Everybody has a different idea about what's good architecture."

"Unforgivable" is how Macsai appraises The Courts' crowded row of townhouses. "People need to realize that if you have a big bag of sand and you sit on it, it just spreads."

Macsai's call for a binding design review may be in the works, but not in a form he'd likely approve. Ald. Arthur Newman (1st), the council's majority bloc leader, has proposed that all future projects containing more than 24 dwelling units or 20,000 square feet of floor space be reclassified as "planned developments." Translation: On the big stuff, the council would have final say on height, density, parking--the works.

A 13-year council veteran, Newman has been bullish on development and takes credit for the course change on the former Research Park that led to Century Theaters, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and the other amenities that followed. Lately, though, he's hearing from voters who want a slowdown.

"There's been a total metamorphosis [of Evanston]," Newman says. "But it's happening so quickly and so much that the town is getting upset. People want us to take a deep breath." Defending the proposal for planned developments, he says: "There needs to be more community input. [Developers] are just going to have to go through a little more public process."

Perhaps, but Evanston's City Council, where Newman, a combative divorce lawyer, sets the tone, may not be the best place to haggle over building heights and front-yard setbacks. Chicago makes great use of planned-development negotiations, trading added density for public amenities. But the trade-offs are negotiated in private, among the local alderman and design professionals for the city and the developer, not by part-time politicians preening for cable TV.

Newman appears to draw energy from two running battles. One is against Northwestern University, which he claims would run roughshod over his 1st Ward were it not for his vigilance. The other is against Mayor Lorraine Morton, who he claims is too cozy with Northwestern and not up to speed on development issues.

"We haven't had a mayor," Newman says. "All she cares about is Northwestern and the taxes on her own house."

Counters Morton: "You can take a tin pan and make a lot of noise. You don't get anything done by being hostile. A good administrator is a good negotiator."

The back-and-forth gets petty, as when Newman protested Morton's cell-phone bills going on the city's tab, and when he asked who exactly paid for her trip to see the Wildcats in the Rose Bowl. (She says it was a travel agent's promotion.) But so far the feud, while a civic embarrassment, hasn't interfered with Evanston's growth spurt. That's because Morton has been as gung-ho for new development as Newman.

"We got ourselves into a bind where we need resources for the many services we provide," says Morton, a retired school principal who has been mayor since 1993.

"We don't have land to spread out so we have to spread up. Some people who've lived here a long time don't like that."

Some residents think Morton's easy manner is the glue that keeps Evanston from flying apart. "She's done a damned good job," says Hecky Powell, owner of Hecky's Barbecue and member of the District 65 Elementary School Board. "Lorraine keeps us together the same way she did [as principal] at Haven School."

Powell has distribution deals with Peapod home delivery and local supermarkets, not to mention the press box franchise at Northwestern football games. Needless to say, he is pro-development and pro-NU. (The university's MBA students have prepared marketing plans for him as a class project.)

"We should have had the Bears here [at NU's Ryan Field] when they were rebuilding Soldier Field. We should have had the Virginia Slims tennis here too [at NU's Welsh-Ryan arena] in a five-year deal. But no, people were worried fans would piss in their bushes. Let me tell you, tennis fans aren't that way."

Nor, he argues, are white developers out to chase blacks from the 5th Ward. "We have lots of old houses [in west Evanston] that ought to come down. But nobody says you've got to sell your home. We need to get in on development, not wall it off with a moratorium. Sure, some of the designs aren't that good, but it's bringing business downtown and bringing business to me."

Then again, not everyone is so well positioned to benefit from development, reminds George Mitchell, president of the Evanston NAACP. "Older people are concerned about development because they're being priced out and taxed out. I understand why Joe Kent wanted the moratorium [in the 5th Ward]."

And so it goes. Affluent homeowners want their quiet streets and red sunsets. The less fortunate dread their next tax bill and hope to hang on. Downtown's new cliff dwellers enjoy their lake views and the bruschetta pomodoro at Bar Louie. Oldtimers miss the bluegrass music at Hoos Drug Store and hot fudge sundaes from The Huddle.

Evanston is growing and changing, adapting and resisting, cursing and praying. But one thing's a constant: Most folks here, for all their protest and complaint, thrive on the give-and-take. Wouldn't have it any other way. Wouldn't live anywhere else.

"It's a place where everyone can have a say," says retired federal Judge Abner Mikva, a transplanted Hyde Parker who represented Evanston in Congress. "It's a wonderful example of how democracy works."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading