City in the suburbs

The wave of commercial development in Evanston includes an 18-screen Century Theatres cinema complex with a built-in bar.  Photo by

Evanston transforms from sleepy burb to mini-metropolis

We are seated at Koi Chinese and sushi restaurant in downtown Evanston, and Andy Warhol’s portrait of Chairman Mao, this one in shades of red, is looming over my right shoulder. It’s as if he, too – the Chairman – is keeping a close eye on the “underwater garden” tea pitcher we have ordered, its bloom suddenly bashful. The tea is sweet and light, and the two enormous maki rolls in front of us are almost too pretty to eat. But this is not enough; we are waiting for this special tea’s flowers to bloom before our eyes.

“It usually doesn’t take this long,” says Bing Zhou, the restaurant’s owner, who has taken to prodding the floating plant with chopsticks.

Zhou, who immigrated to Chicago from Shanghai close to twenty years ago, when he was 20, is the owner of the popular Lake View restaurant, Chen’s. About a year ago he opened Koi at 624 Davis St., just east of Sherman Avenue, downtown Evanston’s main street.

“I just thought the North Shore needed a nice Asian restaurant and I like Evanston, which is very close to the city, and looks like a city,” Zhou says. “They’re building highrises everywhere here, and it’s happening so fast.”

Koi Chinese and sushi restaurant, which features a blooming 'underwater garden' tea pitcher, is one of many new restaurants bringing diners to downtown Evanston.  Photo by Michael AustinIf only the tea were on the same schedule. Not that we are complaining. We are in a stylish restaurant in a city with a buzz (it has a skyline, so “city” no longer seems an exaggeration.) Spread out before us is a bounty of hot food, including a platter of short ribs, and a Szechwan-style red snapper served whole – fins, teeth and tail – as a symbol of prosperity and good luck. Nothing could be more fitting in Evanston at the moment.

In the past five years, the downtown area of the first suburb north of Chicago has gone through an unprecedented construction renaissance, and for the most part, the direction of that boom has been “up.” According to architect-developer Thomas Roszak, president of Roszak/ADC, more than 300 new condos have been built in Evanston per year since 2001. All that building has created a mini-skyline in Evanston, and a critical mass of foot traffic. Which in turn has caused restaurateurs, such as Zhou, and other business owners, to make tracks for this new mini-metropolis.

“The city has been very cooperative with developers, and they’ve set the stage for this to happen,” Roszak says.

Recent projects for Roszak include Chicago Avenue Place, a 156-unit mid-rise condominium building with a European-style courtyard; 1572 Maple, a luxury condo development that was completed in the fall of 2004; and Sienna, a luxury condominium and townhouse community with 237 units priced from the $230s to $1 million under construction at Clark, Oak and Ridge streets.

Sherman Plaza, at the corner of Sherman Avenue and Church Street, is another major project and already has had a big impact on downtown Evanston. The development encompasses nearly an entire city block. It features a 25-story tower with 253 condominiums priced from the $370s and a garage that will offer nearly 1,600 parking spaces when complete. The complex is a joint venture between Focus Development, Inc., Klutznick-Fisher Development Co., and the city of Evanston.

Koi Chinese and sushi restaurant, which features a blooming 'underwater garden' tea pitcher, is one of many new restaurants bringing diners to downtown Evanston.  Photo by Michael Austin“We’re getting a lot of relocations, people from out of state,” says Tim Anderson, president of Focus. “So there’s a recognition there. Evanston has name recognition nationally.”

Perhaps no one can lay greater claim to changing the face of Evanston in recent years than David Hovey, of Optima, Inc. Hovey is a first-class architect, who fortunately for the Chicago area, is also a developer. This means that his progressive designs don’t get compromised or quashed when a project is on the drawing board, because he’s controlling the purse strings as well as the ideas.

Optima’s cool towers, with their walls of tinted glass, beautiful angles and brightly colored accents have put a powerful, forward-looking stamp on the suburb that makes it unique in the area. Some critics have complained that the bright orange or yellow balconies on some Optima projects are garish, but buyers have snapped up condos at Optima Horizons, Optima Towers, Optima Views and Optima Esplanade – developments featuring fountains, reflecting pools, private terraces, balconies and terrific views.

Projects by Roszak, Focus and others also have strong designs, and together, the new developments are giving Evanston an aesthetic that puts most suburbs to shame. Construction cranes are a regular sight lately in a downtown that once was a cute but sleepy business district a few blocks west of the lakefront and south of Northwestern University, the entity responsible for putting Evanston on the map in the first place. Students still bring life to the suburb and the university is a major cultural attraction, though as some council members have pointed out during their famous feuds with the school over paying for city services, Evanston now has lots to offer apart from Northwestern.

Downtown Evanston has become an entertainment destination for the suburb’s 75,000 residents, for people who live in other North Shore suburbs and increasingly, for city dwellers. Some even think of Evanston as the “downtown” of the North Shore. Evanston has attracted large retailers such as Borders and Whole Foods, which are hanging shingles alongside an abundance of independent cafes, boutiques, salons and specialty shops.

At 28 stories, Evanston's Optima Views, developed by Optima, Inc., is the tallest of a new wave of building in the North Shore suburb.  Photo by Michael AustinAn 18-screen Century Theatres cinema complex devotes six of its screens to art films and is home to the area’s chicest bar requiring you to enter through a cinema lobby. Featuring live jazz, and a dramatic two-story wall of windows for a back bar, the Rhythm Room would make you forget you were steps away from a movie screen if not for the giant vintage movie posters on one wall. The bar serves food, and if you must, the bartender assured us one recent evening, you’re welcome to bring in popcorn or Sno-Caps or whatever your heart desires from the concession stand. Not that the oversized leather furniture, dazzling back bar and classic jazz encourage popcorn munching, despite the location.

“I think the changes have been great for Evanston,” says Thomas M. Leinenweber, an attorney with Leinenweber & Baroni, and an Evanston resident since 1994. “I like the new theaters and stores. It beats the hell out of some mall.”

That may be one reason many people choose to live in Evanston, the fact that it doesn’t have a mall or other hallmarks of the typical Midwestern suburb. Evanston has long been a place that isn’t quite Chicago, isn’t quite the North Shore – a place that isn’t quite city, isn’t quite suburban. For many, that’s the appeal. Another reason might be that Evanston is old and established, unlike many suburbs on the western fringes of Chicago’s sprawl. In neighborhoods east and north of downtown Evanston, breathtaking mansions and mature trees give the town a stately charm, calling to mind a place that has evolved on its own, measured terms.

The real estate boom of the last decade and the pace of building in Evanston have rapidly driven up home prices in the community. The average single-family home cost $595,613 in Evanston during 2005, up 47 percent in four years. The average price of a condominium was $286,000 last year, up 35 percent since 2001. The town of Ridgeville, as it was called in the 19th century, has come a long way since nine devout Methodists gathered there in 1850 to found Northwestern University.

Evanston gets its current name from Ohio-born John Evans, a politician, physician and player with railroads who also was a founder of both Northwestern University and the University of Denver. He also helped found Mercy Hospital, and the Illinois Republican Party; and he counted Abraham Lincoln as a personal friend.

Evanston shares a border with Chicago – the south side of Howard Street is Chicago, the north side is Evanston – and the two cities stretch eastward to the Lake Michigan shoreline. On the north end, Evanston touches Wilmette, and to the west is Skokie, with McCormick Boulevard forming a long stretch of the border.

Home to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and long ago, home to groundbreaking feminist and WCTU president Frances Willard, Evanston was not always a good-time town. Even 10 years ago, the list of Evanston restaurants on par with Chicago’s was a short one, save for a few gems such as Trio. Now called Trio Atelier, the restaurant has turned out four of Chicago’s – and the nation’s – most celebrated chefs since it opened in 1993: Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto, Shawn McClain and Grant Achatz. Alas, the celebrated restaurant serves one last night of inspired dinners on Feb. 25, as owner Henry Adaniya says it is time for him to move on and do other things. The culinary world will miss Trio, but there are still viable options in Evanston due, in part, to the abundance of housing in this revitalized central business district.

Winthrop Properties is currently developing a 15-story, 114-unit condominium building at 1567 Maple Ave. with average units measuring 1,200 square feet. Dubbed Winthrop Club, the complex is geared toward empty nesters, people with larger North Shore homes whose kids have grown up and moved out. They want to scale back and give up mowing the lawn for a taste of big city buzz without the big city. Bob Horner, a principal at Winthrop, says downtown Evanston also is an attractive location for downtown Chicago commuters who don’t want to live in the city.

“You can get to Union Station in Chicago a lot quicker from Evanston than you can from Lincoln Park,” he says. “It’s like a 14-minute train ride if you catch the express.” With CTA and Metra trains arriving in and departing from downtown Evanston dozens of times per day, the argument for an easy commute is a sound one.

Susan Cooney, an Evanston-based sales associate with Coldwell Banker, says the popular condominium choice in Evanston has been the two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit. While she welcomes the changes Evanston is going through, she also keeps tabs on the desires and goals of city leaders. Currently the hot topic is providing affordable housing to go along with the luxury condominiums.

“Evanston has traditionally had a diverse economic and culturally diverse population,” she says, “and that’s what people love about it. You don’t want that to get eaten up with highrise condos. And that’s not easy to do, to keep the balance.”

For now, the developers and Cooney, and several residents and business owners, are happy with the activity. There will be a time, though, when enough is enough.

Northwestern University senior Nell Compernolle studies at the Unicorn Cafe, 1723 Sherman Ave.  Photo by“The boom is good to a degree,” Cooney says. “Downtown needed some revitalization because we didn’t have these stores and this vitality. But you do have to watch what the developers are planning to do. And I think you also have to listen to the neighbors. If you come to our city council meetings there are people out there who are concerned it’s coming too quickly and that the character of downtown Evanston has changed.”

Meanwhile, back at Koi, our bashful “underwater garden” has bloomed, and we now have a pitcher of tea sporting two tiny flowers.

“Finally,” says Bing Zhou.

We all have to admit – all of us except Mao, of course – that at the moment, the blossom looks awfully good. We return to our sushi and sake, but periodically, we glance at the tea, checking to see if, like the town in which it’s brewed, it’s ready to surprise us with another burst of growth.

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