By Ben Joravsky

The great debate over multiscreen movie theaters, which has raged for the last few years in suburbs and neighborhoods all over the region, has found its way to Evanston.

On one side, a handful of city officials are leading the charge to build an 18-screen complex in the Northwestern University/Evanston Research Park on the western edge of downtown–starting by spring if possible. They maintain that it will ignite more development and enable Evanston to keep property taxes relatively low.

On the other side is a fledgling but rapidly growing coalition of residents who plead for more study and argue for an alternative project that would be less congested, noisy, and architecturally revolting.

“We’re not opposed to developing the property, we just want it done intelligently,” says Liz Reeves, a leader of the opposition. “A lot of people ask, ‘Are you for or against development?’ And we always say, ‘You have to look at the kind of development and figure out how it can help the whole community.'”

It’s not easy to understand why Evanston officials would welcome the screens most other communities abhor. Evanston’s downtown seems to be thriving already. The recently built library is bustling, the real estate market booming, and the city hopping with coffee shops, bookstores, boutiques, and restaurants.

Yet long-standing problems persist. Evanston has had a hard time finding tenants for several large downtown properties, such as the old Chandler’s and Woolworth stores. The vacancies are even more perplexing in southeast Evanston, where the Coronet theater, the Main Cafe, and the newsstand at Chicago and Main remain boarded up, even as the surrounding community bursts with new town houses and condos.

The problem, observers say, is that Evanston’s merchants are burdened by high taxes and sapped by competing suburban malls. This is an age-old lament, which was supposed to be addressed a decade ago by the research park, a 23-acre triangle-shaped complex just across the el tracks from the old Marshall Field’s building at Church and Benson.

A debate still rages as to whether the park, a joint venture of Evanston and Northwestern University, was worth the money. Evanston officials say yes, noting that dozens of jobs were created in the park and that almost 90 percent of the buildings there are leased; many longtime residents say no, contending the park has never contributed the $9 million in annual tax revenues that a former mayor once said it would. But almost everyone agrees that the time has come to develop the park’s vacant portions residentially or commercially.

“Up until a year ago we concentrated on building research and development in the park,” says Alderman Dennis Drummer, whose ward encompasses most of the research park. “Now we want to propose other sorts of economic development. Initially, we had some inquiries from companies to build a hotel there. So we decided to put out a request for proposals.”

By the end of the summer the city had received competing proposals from Arthur Hill & Company and the John Buck Company, two successful and well-connected firms. “There are some similarities in the proposals,” says Drummer. “Both call for multiscreen theaters and a 150-room hotel, at least 60,000 square feet of retail space as well as a garage that would house 700 to 1,000 cars.”

The proposals were unveiled at a sparsely attended and apparently poorly advertised September hearing. City officials there made it clear that this would be a “fast-track” effort, meaning they hoped to begin construction as soon as next spring.

Despite their sense of urgency, the officials were short on details. The project would cost about $58 million, but no one knew (or would say) how much of that the city would have to pay. (Assistant city manager Judith Aiello, who is overseeing the project, did not return phone calls.)

Multiplexes have ignited resistance almost everywhere they’ve been proposed, including Lakeview. In Evanston distrust was almost immediate once the word got out, if for no other reason than the lack of public notice.

“I heard rumors about it over the summer, and when I attended the [September] hearing I was flabbergasted to learn that they were in the final stages of planning,” says Kathy Burgess, who lives near the proposed project. “I thought, ‘They’re going to do this and we’re not going to have any say?'”

Potential traffic problems bother Burgess. “Most of the surrounding area is residential,” she says. “Bringing in hundreds of cars for the theaters will be noisy and disruptive.”

The project seemed unimaginative and unproductive to many residents. What makes city officials think it will spur development? residents asked. Multiscreen theaters are what developers call “in and out projects,” meaning that people drive in, see their movie, and drive out. Moviegoers wouldn’t linger to stroll along Benson, Church, Sherman, or any of Evanston’s other downtown streets. And how did officials know there was even a market for more screens, with the Old Orchard, the Evanston, and other movie theaters relatively close by? Instead of pouring money into a downtown multiplex no one seems to want, why not spend it a little more creatively by helping subsidize efforts to convert the old Coronet theater into a revival house like the Music Box?

Burgess began calling neighbors, and soon opposition grew. “I love Evanston, but this proposal is not Evanston,” says Reeves, who lives near Burgess. “It doesn’t have the Main Street feel that makes Evanston so attractive. It’s not storefront. It’s big mall. This is not why people moved to Evanston.”

By the end of September, Reeves, Burgess, and their allies had begun building opposition by distributing flyers at Evanston’s farmers’ market and writing letters to the Evanston Review. An article in last week’s Review by Bob Seidenberg stirred more concern by highlighting troubling details.

For instance, the deal calls for a land swap with Northwestern in which the city would offer the university land in exchange for property it owns in the research park. The project would force the relocation of Dave’s Italian Kitchen and the Pine Yard (two popular restaurants), and maybe even the Levy Senior Citizen Center.

“They don’t know how much this will cost, they don’t know where these businesses will go, and they don’t know for certain that there’s a market for movie screens,” says Reeves. “When you consider all the unanswered questions, you have to ask yourself why the rush? Why the fast track?”

The project comes at a particularly volatile moment in Evanston politics. Two long-standing incumbent aldermen were recently bounced from office for supporting projects their constituents opposed. “I’ve seen it happen before, where you put someone in a position of power and it goes to their head and they get arrogant just by being an alderman,” says one longtime Evanston resident who opposes the plan. “But I hope the aldermen will listen to reason on this project.”

The recent eruption of opposition apparently has dampened some of the aldermanic enthusiasm; at least Drummer, whose backing is crucial, is temporarily withholding his support until “key questions” are answered.

“I need to understand clearly how the traffic is going to impact my ward,” he says. “I’m not crazy about 18 screens either. I think the bottom’s going to fall out of the movie business sooner or later. The biggest concern for me is the swap of land with Northwestern. They’re not going to come in with their hat in hand. I suspect they’re going to want as much as they can get. If the numbers don’t shake out for me, I won’t vote for it.”

In the meantime, Burgess and her allies hope to convince other aldermen not to be rash. “There’s a lot of talent in this city–a lot of architects and developers,” says Burgess. “If they focused on all that talent they could wind up with a much better, more visionary plan–something that would work for Evanston. But they haven’t done that. They submitted a proposal asking for a development of the lowest common denominator, and that’s what they got.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Liz Reeves photo by Randy Tunnell.