Local retail stores struggle to compete with rising rent prices


Daily file photo by Brian Meng

Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Ave. The bookstore’s owner, Nina Barrett, said rising rent prices in Evanston are intimidating to local retail businesses.

Ashley Capoot, Reporter

Steep increases in rent prices are making it more difficult for local retail stores to stay in business, and, in some cases, local businesses have been forced to close.

Rent prices in Evanston increased by 2.3 percent in 2018, according to a January 2019 report conducted by Apartment List. Paul Zalmezak, Evanston’s economic development manager, said rent prices are not likely to decrease in the near future.

“(The city is) not ever going to go after landlords to tell them to lower their rents,” he said. “We can encourage them to be competitive, but that’s about all we can do.”

Zalmezak said landlords have control over rent prices and likely only decrease those prices when they are unable to attract renters.

Mark Jones, the owner of Saville Flowers on Sherman Avenue, said he has especially seen increasing rent prices challenge businesses in Evanston’s retail industry.

“We see a lot of small businesses closing, and the entire retail industry is just more difficult to keep alive and stay competitive and be able to afford rents,” he said. “We’re on a high visibility block, and we have some decent in-store traffic, but it’s difficult to try to keep up on making enough profit to afford our rent.”

Jones said he has noticed that many restaurants have moved to Evanston as retail businesses close. But even restaurants that were popular among Northwestern students — such as Cheesie’s, which closed in June 2018 — were unable to stay open largely because of expensive rent prices, he said.

Nina Barrett, the owner of Bookends & Beginnings, thought she would lose her space and be forced to relocate to another storefront in Evanston after the city proposed a 37-story development on her block last year. When she started looking at other locations in Evanston, she said rent prices were intimidating.

“I will say that that was a pretty scary prospect for me,” Barrett said. “Even if we could have managed those costs, the thing that would have been terrifying for me would have been being locked into some kind of lease where my rent would have at least tripled.”

The development was not approved, so Barrett did not end up having to relocate, but she said problems with rent still persist in the Evanston community.

Because landlords are subject to so few restrictions from the city, Barrett said she has noticed that landlords are free to regulate their own rent prices.

“I don’t think that the city is unaware of this,” Barrett said. “But what I understand from them is that they feel like their hands are sort of tied when they’re dealing with landlords.”

Zalmezak said the city cannot do much to change rent prices in Evanston, but it works to offset other small costs like paying for business signage and managing safety concerns.

Increased rent prices have affected large chains in addition to local businesses, Barrett said.

“For a while, it seemed like the golden egg was going to be these chain stores,” she said. “Many of them just came and went because there wasn’t foot traffic and they’re all the same stores that are out at Old Orchard anyway. So that whole model of having your downtown look like a shopping mall, it hasn’t worked anywhere, really.”

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Twitter: @ashleycapoot