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Hands across the border: Chicagoans join Evanstonians to oppose a shopping center development deal

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For the last 20 years, the people living on opposite sides of this particular stretch of Howard Street haven't had much reason to meddle in each other's affairs. Southwest Evanston and West Rogers Park--nearly identical patchworks of post-World War II brick bungalows--are, after all, in different municipalities.

"They're there and we're here," says 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone. "We've never had trouble with them, but we've never had any reason to work with them either."

But now residents on both sides of Howard find themselves united against a common foe--the city of Evanston. Or, to be exact, a proposal backed by Evanston to build a 23-acre shopping center at the intersection of Hartrey and Howard. The mall would feature a large grocery store, a Target discount department store, and several smaller stores.

Many nearby Chicago residents oppose it because they fear its traffic would make their already crowded streets even more congested. Evanston's residents worry because the mall's grocery store would sell liquor (including cold beer and wine) around the clock, which would violate the city's current ordinance. Both sides chide Evanston officials and the mall's developers (whose lawyer and chief spokesman would not comment) for operating in secrecy.

"Our city has become so desperate for tax dollars that they have caved in to the demands of these developers and are shoving this thing down our throats," says Jim Sheedy, who lives in Evanston, half a block away from the proposed mall. "It's worse for Chicago; they'll get the traffic without any tax benefits."

Such fears are exaggerated, Evanston officials counter. "The developers are good people," says Judith Aiello, Evanston's assistant city manager. "They aren't going to walk away from this project. They will manage it and we will make sure they manage it well."

At issue is a site in the far southwest corner of Evanston that was once one of Bell & Howell's leading research facilities. "For the last few years there have been rumors about proposed projects," says Aiello. "But there was nothing specific."

Then in July Evanston officials were approached by a wealthy combine of developers that included the development consulting firm of Tanguay-Burke-Stratton Inc., the Dayton Hudson Corporation (which owns Target and Marshall Field's), and Trident Development, a Chicago-based developer. They were convinced the area was underserved, arguing that there is only one grocery store and no general-merchandise department store within a five-minute drive. And they wanted to make a deal.

The developers also made it clear that they had access to an equally choice location nearby in Skokie. They demanded that Evanston subsidize the project and amend its liquor laws to accommodate a grocery store targeted for the site.

"We didn't have a lot of leverage," says Evanston alderman Ann Rainey, in whose ward the project would be. "It was clear that we would do just about anything to get this development. And they let us know that if they didn't get what they wanted, they were going to Skokie."

Like most cities, Evanston needs ways to boost revenues and maintain services without increasing property taxes. The developers estimated that their mall would create 700 new jobs, and eventually yield $1.4 million a year in property and sales taxes--an annual haul roughly $540,000 more than the amount Bell & Howell now pays in property tax. "It all came down to jobs and taxes," says Aiello. "We felt that this was an excellent way to enhance our tax base and provide jobs for our residents by putting underutilized land to productive use."

On November 11 the Evanston City Council took its first step toward officially approving the project by voting to consider making the site a Tax Increment Financing District. Tax-increment financing is a method used to subsidize private development. The city borrows the money (in this case about $9 million) to help build a project and then repays the loan with the increase in property and real estate taxes generated by the project.

There was no opposition to the TIF proposal; indeed, few people knew the project was even proposed. It wasn't until November 20 that the city distributed fliers notifying local residents of the proposal.

"We were shocked that the project had gone so far without anyone telling us," says Sheedy. "Evanston is supposed to be an open community, but they were practically plotting in the dark."

On November 24, the city held a meeting between the developers and residents of southwest Evanston--a session that raised more questions than it answered. The residents wondered how officials could be so confident the mall would succeed. True, there are no grocery stores in the immediate area. But the closest one, at Howard and Western, is only about ten blocks away. And there are four other shopping centers within a few miles. What would happen if the mall failed? Who would pay off the debt?

"They treat this as a sure thing, when it's really a gamble," says Sheedy. "If it fails, we the taxpayers will have to use money that might otherwise go for police, fire, and schools to pay off those bonds."

The residents also worried about the liquor store. The mall would be only a few blocks away from James Park, where dozens of softball teams play in the summer. "I can see it now: people buying cold beer at the grocery store and then littering the park with their bottles," says Sheedy. "This is a nice, peaceful community. And we would like it to stay that way."

Evanston officials tried to reassure residents by telling them that they would have a say in designing the mall, and that Target had indicated that they would guarantee to set aside a portion of its sales revenues to help retire the TIF debt. But the residents weren't satisfied, and they reached across Howard Street for support. "When we found out about the mall we couldn't believe it," says Judith Rubin, president of the North Boundary Home Owner League, a West Rogers Park community group. "They were going to direct this traffic over here and they weren't even going to tell us."

For the most part, the Chicagoans felt helpless. Evanston officials didn't need their permission to approve the project and have no reason to listen to their complaints. But Alderman Stone vowed to make life uncomfortable for the mall's backers.

"I heard all of these Evanston officials throwing in the towel, telling people that the project couldn't be stopped, and I said to myself, 'The hell with that,'" says Stone. "You liberals like to make fun of Chicago aldermen. But I tell you this, when it comes to local issues, we deliver for our people."

In early January Stone announced that he would "build a wall down Howard Street" if that's what it would take to keep traffic from the mall out of his ward. He was quoted in the Tribune, igniting a small war of words with Evanston's politicians.

"Berny is a windbag," says Rainey. "He has nothing to lose by opposing this project, so he can say whatever he wants. Meanwhile the rest of us are stuck with the hard work of making this thing more manageable."

The criticism seems only to harden Stone's resolve. "I'll stick stop signs on every block along Kedzie; I'll cul-de-sac at the north-south streets. I'll do whatever I can to block traffic for miles and sabotage their mall. The hell with these guys. They don't care about Chicago, why should I care about them?"

Of course, Stone's ability to carry out his threats is doubtful. But his vociferous rhetoric has energized opposition from Sheedy and other Evanstonians, who are now attempting to block the development by denying the grocery store a liquor license.

The sale of liquor has always been a hot issue in Evanston, birthplace of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. To build the mall, the city council would have to amend the city's stringent liquor code, which limits package stores to the central business district.

At a council meeting two weeks ago, Rainey proposed that the city delay action on the mall until voters could be asked by referendum whether or not they would approve the sale of nonchilled beer and wine in all grocery stores bigger than 12,000 square feet. Rainey's proposal put her fellow council members in an awkward position. Until then, they had been asking residents of southwest Evanston to sacrifice their parochial concerns for the common good of the city. And yet they had to realize that they would oppose such a store if it were earmarked for a residential neighborhood in any of their districts.

"Look, it's easy to take the high and noble stand for economic development so long as the liquor store is in someone else's backyard," says Rainey. "My point was that before we force a liquor store down the throat of one particular community, let's see how the voters think about it. This is a controversial change; we should make sure it's what the people want."

The council, however, rejected Rainey's proposal by a ten-to-eight vote (Mayor Joan Barr voted with the majority). Instead, they decided to consider a proposal that would allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores of at least 60,000 square feet. (The vote is scheduled for the January 27 council meeting.)

"A store that's 60,000 square feet is huge," says Aiello. "There are no grocery stores that big in Evanston. And the only one that would be that big, of course, is the one targeted for the Hartrey site."

Most observers figure the ordinance will pass, and that Evanston will ultimately approve the project. "You'll see--people will appreciate the mall once it's built," Aiello predicts. "Many of its opponents will probably shop there."

But Sheedy and his allies on both sides of Howard Street vow to keep it from being built. "We're circulating petitions to get the 10,000 signatures we need to place the Rainey liquor referendum on the ballot for November's election," says Sheedy. "If the vote against liquor is strong, I don't see how they can go on with the project as it is. We're fighting this thing to the end."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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