Official acts as middleman in city development

Tom Giratikanon

Century Theaters, 1715 Maple Ave., is one of James Wolinski’s favorite places in Evanston, and he considers it one of the most beautiful multiplexes in the area.

“It’s gorgeous,” he said, “I love to go to the movies.”

The theater was also a professional achievement for Wolinski, who has been the director of community development in Evanston for 11 years.

He serves as a liaison between aldermen and developers and briefs both groups about the standards that proposals must meet.

Wolinski credits the theater project with helping to revitalize downtown after the theater was completed in 2000.

“It spurred a nightlife that wasn’t there before,” he said.

With his silver watch, clear oval glasses and sleek white hair, Wolinski sits in the center of his circular office at the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., during a time of construction boom for the city. He has worked in city government for his entire career.

“I was always interested in urban planning,” he said.

Wolinski is the first city official who developers talk with when deciding what can be built on a piece of land, said Walter Kihm, a developer of Cyrus Homes.

“He’s a straight-shooter and a man of his word,” Kihm said. “He tells you like it is.”

Kihm said Wolinski has always been accessible throughout the more than 15 years they have worked together. Wolinski was the building and zoning director for the city before he became community development director.

Wolinski said his job is to guide developers from the time they look into buying land until they make their case to aldermen and to critique them when their proposals violate regulations.

When buildings are completed, Wolinski sometimes meets in person with families who move in. He also receives calls from families complaining that new high-rises have negative effects, such as blocking lakeviews.

“The position he’s in, dealing with all sides – he’s kind of the middleman that brings all sides together,” Kihm said of Wolinski.

Wolinski also advises aldermen about whether proposals comply with building safety and maintenance codes. When he attends City Council or committee meetings, his days can stretch from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Wolinski is unfailingly helpful, said Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd), who interacts with Wolinski during most weeks.

“He’s the easiest person to work with; I don’t know how he does it. He’s always on top of his responsibilities,” he said.

There are several proposed developments in Jean-Baptiste’s ward, such as 40 townhomes for 1613 Church St. and affordable-housing units at Church Street and Darrow Avenue. City Council voted Tuesday to postpone Darrow Corners, but it approved the Church Street Village proposal.

Wolinski has earned two master’s degrees, one in public administration from the University of Illinois and one in communication from Northwestern in 2000. The diplomas hang on the wall of his office.

The largest photograph in Wolinski’s office shows him and other city officials on Howard Street. It was taken in 1995 as part of a neighborhood plan that included picking up trash to clean up the area, he said.

Despite the number of large projects in the downtown area, Wolinski said it is also important to take care of other areas.

“We go to people and find out what they want their community to be,” he said.

Reach Tom Giratikanon at [email protected]