Concerns raised over Northlight Theatre’s return to Evanston


Daily file photo by Julia Jacobs

Northlight Theatre executive director Tim Evans (right) and artistic director BJ Jones speak to City Council in October 2015 about their interest in returning to Evanston in its proposed downtown performing arts center. Some community members expressed concerned because the development is a proposed high-rise, and the space is currently home to seven businesses.

Amelia Langas, Assistant City Editor

As Northlight Theatre plans its return to Evanston in a proposed 37-story building on Sherman Avenue, some are worried about how large the development is and that its arrival could mean businesses currently occupying the space will have to close down to make room.

The development would bring back the non-profit theater company — originally founded in Evanston — from Skokie, where it has been for the last 20 years. It would also house a boutique hotel, a restaurant, 152 residential units and a 258-space parking facility, said Patrick O’Connor, a principal at Farpoint Development, the lead developer for the project.

Northlight Theatre would comprise half the development space with about 58,000 feet, O’Connor said. The building would easily be the city’s tallest if plans are approved.

Johanna Leonard, the city’s community development director, said she is excited about Northlight returning to Evanston.

“(The city is) looking forward to the opportunity to working with the developer and the broader community to refine the concept that was presented … to reflect what is best about Evanston,” Leonard said.

But the space proposed for the building is currently home to a Gap store, Alley Gallery, a Mattress Firm branch, CouCou & Olive, Bookends and Beginnings, Saville Flowers and Olive Mediterranean Grill.

Ross Martens, co-owner of Alley Gallery, which has been active for more than 30 years, said he was “upset” about the building because it’s not “just” a theater — it’s also bringing luxury apartments and a hotel.

“We were not told ahead of time of this proposal,” Martens said. “No one spoke to us about any of it. … It’s a little upsetting to be out of the loop.”

Martens said he and the owners of other affected businesses will “rally” to try to convince City Council that the Sherman Avenue location is not where the Northlight Theatre should be built. He said he has no qualms about bringing Northlight back to Evanston, but it should not be at the cost of his business and others.

Still, although those businesses would have to close should the building be approved, they would have one to two years before quitting the space, Leonard said.

O’Connor said the building is still an “early stage concept,” but if Evanston determines that it fits into the community, his company will work with the community to decide what’s “appropriate” to do.

“We’d have to work with the individual businesses on a one-by-one basis to see which ones had plans to stay in the neighborhood or relocate,” he said. “We’d really have to work with them one-by-one.”

And while some residents are concerned about height and density in the downtown are, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz said it’s also important for people to live, shop and recreate there. He said the city’s discussions with Farpoint will focus on maintaining that balance.

“It’s important for the community to talk amongst itself, to make sure that Evanston evolves and changes in a way that’s in the best interest of everyone in the community,” Bobkiewicz said.

The 152 residential units qualify the building for Evanston’s “inclusionary housing ordinance,” which requires privately funded developments to either make 10 percent of the residential units affordable housing units or contribute $100,000 per unit to Evanston’s affordable housing fund. Leonard said the building would have to abide by this code.

Farpoint plans to work with the city to follow the code and will meet all requirements if approved, O’Connor said. He said although the next presentations for the development committee have not yet been scheduled, the ideal completion date for the project would be in 2021.

“To bring yet another amenity to a very amenity-rich downtown is an investment in our future,” Bobkiewicz said.

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Twitter: @amelialangas