On Thursday, March 31, from 7-9 pm at the Ecology Center, the Central Street Neighbors Association will host a forum asking residents for ideas on the future of Central Street. Invited guests include Alds. Mark Tendam and Jane Grover as well as City of Evanston Director of Economic Development Steve Griffin. What direction future development takes, of course, affects taxes, property values, congestion, local businesses, and the general quality of life.
The backstory for this forum goes back at least to June, 2007, when Evanston adopted the Central Street Master Plan. The zoning aspects of that plan were implemented by ordinance in January, 2008, giving residents and developers certainty about how development would proceed in the future. The Plan was also intended to serve as a template for future improvements along Central Street: to a large degree, what I call the "pretty pictures" of a spiffed-up Independence Park and a more graceful, pedestrian-friendly streetscape were what sold residents on the Plan, which for several areas resulted in an "upzoning" (allowing considerably more height/density than previously existed) while instituting setbacks and slight downzoning (modest controls on height/density) in others.
Since the adoption of that Plan and ordinance, however, there has been very little development or redevelopment in the area due to the collapse in the real estate market, investor reticence, and overall economic recession. Central Street business districts, which already have the "village" feel so many other urban areas are now striving for, has fared better than many districts, with most retail vacancies getting rapidly filled. However, some of the properties that were vacant then are still vacant now, notably the football-field-sized empty lot at 1700-1722 Central, where the Evanston Theaters and associated restaurant and stores used to be, and where the Eastwood development was going to be built.
And, despite the City of Evanston having spent more than half a billion dollars on other things since the Plan was adopted, most of the sidewalks and tree plantings identified in the Plan as needing help back in 2007 remain in the same condition today. While there have been some new dedicated bike lanes painted on the western end of Central, new bike racks are approved for this fiscal year, and state money resulted in resurfacing last summer, the "pretty pictures" we paid consultants six figures to paint remain works of imagination only.
The aldermen who represent the 6th and 7th Wards, Mark Tendam and Jane Grover, have been asking the City when capital budget expenditures will find their way toward Central Street, and simultaneously there has been reported new interest in some developments on the boulevard. Everyone would like to see something besides vacant land on the former Evanston Theaters site; the shuttered Citgo station is not helping itself or anyone else; the Domicile block remains underutilized; and one of the only "activity generators" identified by planners, namely the North Branch of the library, has come under assault by the City.
Residents often have valuable knowledge of what is needed or wanted in an area, that might not be obvious to planners. It's also useful for residents, developers, and city government to exchange ideas in a setting less formal than a hearing. With the economy still not returned to what it was, this hiatus is a good time to identify needs and priorities. Please come to the forum to make sure your thoughts are heard, and to meet and share ideas with neighbors!
Doors open for refreshments and socializing at 6:30.