The old college try
It took two decades and a little geographic luck for Evanston to transform its downtown. Could it work for Hyde Park?
Evanston and Hyde Park sit along Lake Michigan like mirror images on either side of the Loop, and each is home to a world-class university. So why has one boomed while the other struggles? If Hyde Park were to take a page from Evanston’s revitalization playbook, a quick history lesson would be the first order of business.
Kitty-corner to the northern terminus of the Purple Line—the public-transit lifeline of Evanston—sits the gourmet coffee shop Alchemy. For customers’ perusal, the cozy beanery offers yellowed local newspapers from 1947. The novelty lies in looking at the comically outdated ads. For example, a sophisticated lady could pick up a fur coat for $40 at one of downtown Evanston’s many now-defunct department stores—Lytton’s, Marshall Field’s, Lord’s.
By the ’70s and ’80s, America’s suburban mall boom was on. Old Orchard and Lincolnwood Town Center popped up in neighboring Skokie and Lincolnwood, sucking shoppers inland. In 1985, American Hospital Supply Corp., a Fortune 200 firm filling one of Evanston’s largest towers, moved to Deerfield after being bought out. Storefronts sat empty. “People started to ask, would Evanston survive?” remembers Jonathan Perman, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce. So, the city fought back.
The Evanston Plan Commission, a 13-member city panel of local leaders, spent two years formulating an outline of urban renewal, adopting the 143-page strategy in 1989. “The success was built around substantial public works,” Perman explains. “Those projects sent a message to the private investment community that we were serious.” The infrastructure construction included a rebuilt Davis CTA station, public library, streetscape, and water and sewage systems, all centered around a densely populated, pedestrian-oriented transportation hub. A 1993 zoning ordinance opened the way for high-rises, which led to a unique discovery. “If you position a tall building at just the right angle, you can grant almost every one of your units a lake view,” Perman says. It’s a nifty geographic blessing resulting from Evanston edging out a bit into Lake Michigan.
Evanston’s location and new plan were pure land candy to condo developers. “There are four components to make [a residential building] work,” says Tim Anderson, founder of Focus Development, the firm behind Evanston’s mixed residential and retail towers Sherman Plaza and Church Street Station. “You need entertainment, shopping, dining and parking.”
There are about 2,300 metered on-street spaces and 3,215 parking-deck spots in central Evanston. That’s just one of the many figures, charts, maps and data sets the city offers investors in a new, equally gargantuan reassessment of the downtown plan. Meanwhile, when the question of parking spaces is put to Hyde Park’s two aldermanic offices and its chamber of commerce (which counts one employee, compared to Evanston’s four), we literally get laughs.
Hyde Park lacks the organization of Evanston. It’s understandable, as Hyde Park is just one slice of Chicago’s 50-ward pie, as opposed to a self-reliant city. If a developer wants data on Hyde Park, it’s dealing with two wards and a much larger city government.
Of course, both ’hoods thrive off their academic institutions, but Evanston seems to tap into it more. Evanston’s old Hospital Supply building was refilled with Rotary International’s headquarters and dozens of knowledge-based information-service companies—brainy consulting firms that fish from Northwestern. “They’re here because they can find the talent. Universities are not as susceptible to economic swings,” Perman says. “One day they’re not going to pull up stakes and move to Charlotte, North Carolina.”