Despite a slew of obstacles in their way, Skokie's development directors have a game plan when it comes to revitalizing their downtown area.
First and foremost is a poor economy, in which tightened business lending is contributing to more than a dozen storefront vacancies along both Oakton Street and Lincoln Avenue.
Next is the long-established large shopping centers possessing a majority of Skokie’s retail power at the far north and south ends of town, with Westfield Old Orchard and Village Crossing Shopping Center.
The long-term vision is a different downtown than has been traditionally conceived, and developed in contrast to the powerful business draws of Old Orchard and Village Crossing. The process is being recalibrated after the firm rejection of the Oakton Road Diet proposal that would have narrowed the street to two traffic lanes while increasing parking and widening sidewalks. But the basic plan is still in place.
Mixed-use zoning seen as a plus
The planners point to liberal zoning laws that permit mixed-use development, a $50,000 TIF (tax-increment financing) package for each new store to improve its appearance, the opening of the new Yellow Line CTA station at the far east end of downtown and the hoped-for growth of the science-technology park on the former Pfizer drug complex site.
“Our objective is to create a much more lively area that people will want to come to for various uses where people like to work and live in the area,” said Tom Thompson, Skokie’s economic development coordinator, said in a recent wide-ranging interview for Patch in tandem with Peter Peyer, community development director.
“Downtowns are not just straight commercial area, they’re not just shopping areas," Thompson said. "They’re places where people would want to practice their religion, go to the theater and restaurants, work in a tech park, use a transit station.
“The new thing is people like to live in downtowns. You didn’t see that until the last 20 or 30 years except in for maybe some very major cities," he added. "Almost 500 housing units built in this downtown area in 1990s and early 2000s (with TIF assistance). People would much rather use their dry cleaner, their hardware store next door to them rather than drive somewhere else.”
Economic turnaround a key
Skokie’s long-term “20-20” development plan, promoting residential-commercial developments, should put the village in position to take advantage of a better economy.
“We’re looking at the train station and the research park to liven up the downtown in the coming years when the economy turns around,” Peyer said. “We can’t project when, but we’ll be ready for it. We changed the zoning to promote re-development. The infrastructure is ready for it.”
Thompson and planners studied other suburban downtowns: Naperville, Evanston, Highland Park, Arlington Heights, La Grange, Forest Park and Libertyville.
The said business districts have long fed off the Metra lines running straight through the middle of the downtowns. Skokie has now tapped into a new CTA line themselves; located at the intersection of Oakton Street and Skokie Boulevard, just west of the downtown area.
Theaters anchor other downtowns
Downtown Evanston, Highland Park and Arlington Heights have full-time movie theaters as anchors, along with a variety of restaurants to complement the movie houses.
A recent tour of Highland Park showed restaurants and bakeries seemingly in every third storefront, and fanning off on side streets intersecting Central, the main street. The diner has multiple choices of Mexican and sushi eateries. Large retailers also are present.
In contrast, Skokie's downtown theatre recently closed. However, the area has recently had an upsurge in new restaurants.
Thompson and Peyer are starting small with their downtown vision, they said.
“You have to build in different kinds of lifestyles and attractions,” Thompson said. “This area never had department stores or anchors. What it has is a Village Hall, churches, a library, office buildings and tech park. Those are the anchors per se. You’re never going to see large-scale retailers like in shopping centers. You have to think more in terms of basic retailing – hardware stores, restaurants, commercial services, food stores, delicatessens. They can work fine here.”
Peyer saw more targeting of tastes for downtown: “Specialty merchants, restaurants, a paint store, there might be some boutiques that come in.”
Starting small on several levels?
They seem to be willing to start small, along with several new restaurants who have just opened their doors downtown.
“Part of the ‘Las Palmas’ (Mexican restaurant chain) family opened Libertad,” said Thompson. “He wanted to go off in an independent direction on his own. I think you’re going to see a lot more of those smaller entities filling up spaces, using our interior-rehab program. Then you might see some of the larger chains taking a look at the area. Hey, there’s 10 independents doing well, why can’t I move a big restaurant in there?”
For now, the planners are happy with an Aldi supermarket and an adjoining produce store near the new CTA station, but they’d love the presence of a premium store like Trader Joe’s, which would be a prime anchor. They also realize the rapidly-expanding chain calls you – you don’t call them – when choosing a new location, they said.