Skokie’s Big Idea

Trying to wake its sleepy town center, Skokie has bypassed upscale retail in favor of luring science and technology companies. But will the suburb’s $750-million plan pay off?

Randy Miles, a restaurant owner in downtown Skokie, recalls how the multimillion-dollar introduction of the arthritis drug Celebrex did wonders-briefly-to ease his financial aches and pains. That was 1998, a time when the drug’s owner-the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer-ran a 1,500-person research facility on the edge of Skokie’s downtown. As Celebrex came online, many of those Pfizer workers, along with visiting New York–based company brass, patronized Miles’ Village Inn Pizzeria Sports Bar & Grill to toast Celebrex’s arrival and conduct strategy sessions. “They had a party that lasted a month,” recalls Miles, who has owned the Village Inn since 1990. “Business went up 35 percent.”

These days, however, it is Skokie’s downtown that’s hurting and in need of relief. In 2003, Pfizer closed the 23-acre facility. Since then, dozens of surrounding restaurants, stores, and other neighborhood enterprises have been fighting to stay alive; others just gave up and died.

Many older suburbs face a similar economic drama of declining downtowns. Some communities, such as Evanston and Highland Park, are successfully luring glitzy retail chains and multiplex movie theatres, transforming aged town centers into “destination downtowns” designed to attract visitors from Chicago and the entire North Shore.

Skokie has embarked on a different and riskier tack. It has teamed up with a developer to rebuild the old Pfizer campus into a science and technology facility aimed at luring scores of fast-growing businesses. In theory, those companies will bring in 3,000 to 6,000 workers, many of them well paid and young. The suburb hopes to convert them into regular shoppers and downtown residents. People involved in the redevelopment plan say it could cost nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in public and private funding over the next decade. “I salute what Evanston and Highland Park are doing but we have no intention of duplicating it,” says Skokie’s mayor, George Van Dusen.

Skokie’s downtown venture represents a bold stroke for a suburb that-except for one painful and notorious conflict-has largely kept a low profile. Niles Centre, as the town was originally known, was incorporated in 1888, but in 1940 the village leaders (to avoid recurring confusion with neighboring Niles) officially changed their municipality’s name to Skokie, the word for “swamp” in the language of the Potawatomi, who are believed to have been the area’s first settlers. In the late 1970s, the National Socialist Party of America, a band of neo-Nazis, sought to march through the village, which among its large Jewish population was home to a number of Holocaust survivors. Skokie residents fought the march-which ultimately took place in Chicago’s Marquette Park-and the town’s antidiscrimination efforts were heralded in a 1981 TV movie, entitled Skokie.

These days, Mayor Van Dusen says, the village-16 miles north of downtown Chicago-has “70 different ethnic groups” living within its 63,000 population, including growing Assyrian, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Russian communities. Skokie also enjoys economic diversity-a mix of commercial, light industrial, and retail businesses that support the village tax base, providing a revenue stream that helps the municipality win important triple-A ratings from major bond agencies. In particular, two large moneymaking malls inhabit opposite sides of town: the Westfield Shoppingtown Old Orchard on the north side and the Village Crossing on the south. In all, sales taxes contribute nearly 24 percent of the village’s annual revenues, according to Skokie’s finance department.

“They’re OK,” says Lorraine H. Morton, longtime mayor of neighboring Evanston. “They have plenty of money.”

Compared with Skokie’s shopping malls, the suburb’s center is a throwback to an era when a downtown’s mission was to provide the boring but essential goods and services of everyday life. You won’t find haute couture or exotic cuisine on Oakton Street, the main drag. But among the dozens of small storefronts there are an Ace Hardware, a sofa reupholsterer, a few dry cleaners, a Walgreens, and Annie’s Pancake House.
Nightfall on a Skokie Illinois street
Photograph: Bob Goodwin
Sunset boulevard: skokie officials hope a science-centric campus will enliven the suburb’s quiet downtown.

Though the village is investing in a program to spruce up Oakton’s look-helping redo façades, fixing curbs, and planting trees-the street doesn’t emit much charm or cheerful ambiance. Traveling west on Oakton, past Skokie Boulevard and crossing through the gateway into downtown, means rumbling over the Skokie Swift el tracks and then being greeted by a hulking Crafty Beaver lumberyard and an Aldi Food Store. The next three blocks are dotted mostly with low-slung storefronts leading to the village hall and library, just west of Lincoln Avenue.

“This is what’s known as a ‘sleepy’ downtown,” says Stephen B. Friedman, a Chicago-based urban planner and development consultant, whose namesake firm worked on a downtown planning assignment for Skokie’s government in 2003 and is no longer in its employ.

Skokie’s brain trust hopes to raise the business district’s fortunes by remaking the Pfizer research facility-a 13-building, one-million-square-foot campus immediately north of Oakton. (The plant was originally built by G. D. Searle & Co., but ended up with Pfizer after a series of “Big Pharma” mergers.) Pfizer tried to sell the property to another large pharmaceutical company, but couldn’t find a buyer. Meanwhile, Skokie officials didn’t want the site to be bulldozed and turned into another regional shopping mall or enclave of single-family homes. “We have enough of both,” says Van Dusen.

Taking another direction, in mid-2005 Pfizer approached a Cleveland-based developer, Forest City Enterprises, which conferred with Skokie’s leaders and decided to buy the facility from Pfizer for $43 million. “We saw it as an opportunity to have some critical mass and move forward fairly quickly,” says Peter Calkins, senior vice president of the Forest City unit overseeing the Skokie project.

Forest City’s plan calls for turning the site, now called the Illinois Science & Technology Park, into a regional research and development facility with dozens of midsized and growing technology-related tenants, who will lease new and existing space at prices ranging from the mid to upper 30s a square foot.

That may represent the first risk, because similar space at established tech centers nationwide goes for $20 to $30 a square foot. Calkins argues that those facilities are often designed for speculative start-ups that don’t require many labs or offices, while Forest City’s customers are more established companies willing to pay for larger state-of-the-art labs, conference rooms, and other support systems. The owner hopes to draw international companies in need of U.S.–based lab space and domestic ventures from the fields of health and bioscience.

Since taking over, Forest City has demolished nine of the 13 Pfizer buildings (mostly older, heavy-manufacturing facilities), leaving about 600,000 square feet of offices and labs. This year, the facility scored its first major tenant in Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, which is renting 130,000 square feet to accommodate 500 employees. Over the next ten years, Forest City plans to build up to one million square feet of new space across nine buildings, which is in addition to the 600,000 square feet that already exists among four buildings. At capacity, the site would employ between 3,000 and 6,000 people, according to Village of Skokie estimates.

Already, Forest City has invested nearly $100 million, and Calkins says the anticipated buildout of the campus to nearly two million square feet will cost more than $500 million.

The village is making pledges, too. Embracing a tactic long used by Chicago’s mayor Richard M. Daley, Skokie set up a $10-million tax increment financing (TIF) district, which will help defray some of Forest City’s expenses as it expands. Skokie also jawboned with other governing bodies, and came away with a $5-million state grant to Forest City and a $10-million commitment from federal and state governments to build a CTA station in downtown Skokie, which will put commuters within a three-block walk of the Forest City facility. (Currently, as in the Searle/Pfizer heyday, employees are picked up by shuttle buses at the end of the Skokie Swift line on Dempster Street and dropped off at the campus.) According to the schedule, the new station’s 18-month construction gets rolling next year. “When we came into the picture we saw the transit stop as critical,” says Calkins.

In return for the government largess, Skokie expects Forest City to make good on its promises. The two have agreed that the massive new facility will be designed as an “open campus” that has a relationship with its surrounding community. No fence will cordon off the grounds from the outside world (Pfizer’s fence has come down). Instead, the campus will feature large tracts of greenery, open spaces, and multiple walkways and points of entry from the village streets.

This approach seeks to send a significant message: workers are encouraged to leave their labs or cubicles and stroll over to Skokie’s commercial district, while the local gentry are welcome to use the open spaces on the grounds for walks, leisure activities, or just taking in a sunset. The warm and fuzzy intentions are backed by some tough social planning strictures. For instance, Forest City will not build a large on-site cafeteria (Pfizer had one) or food court but instead will provide only small vending areas and a small café to accommodate brown-baggers. “It sounds trivial, but if they don’t have a cafeteria, people are more likely to go out,” says Friedman, the urban planner. Another incentive for tenants to venture downtown: no personal service outlets, such as dry cleaners and bank branches, on campus.

plans for Illinois Science and Technology ParkPhotograph: Courtesy of Forest City Enterprises
Once overhauled, the state-of-the-art facility will include a cafe and a conference center, but planners say workers are likely to dine and shop in downtown Skokie.

While the Illinois Science & Technology Park ramps up, Skokie is making additional plans to leverage the anticipated spike in downtown workers. Mayor Van Dusen says the village is open to redevelopment throughout the town center, including knocking down some older buildings to make way for “mixed use” complexes of retail stores topped by condominiums or offices. In December, Skokie began seeking qualified developers to transform a 1.2-acre tract, which holds one store and a village-owned parking lot across the street from Village Hall.

After only two months, Skokie got overtures from seven “qualified” developers, says Van Dusen. Village officials are also holding informal talks with local landlords to encourage growth and change. “I’m open to something, if it makes financial sense,” says Alfred Klairmont, president of Imperial Realty Company, which owns the downtown’s largest office building.

Will all this activity really pay off for Skokie?

A lot rides on Forest City and its technology group, which runs the Skokie project and a 2.3-million-square-foot facility at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. A research report on Forest City by RBC Capital Markets issued last December says that Forest City “management indicated some slowing in the life science development business, especially in Skokie.”

“Every business sector goes through cycles,” responds Calkins. “We don’t see life science as having slowed. It’s not had the fervor of other times, but that’s probably a good thing. No one wants the boom-and-bust cycle of the dot-coms.”

Rich Moore, the industry analyst who wrote the RBC report, points out that Forest City has a $6-billion market capitalization, is profitable, and can afford to be patient with Skokie. “Forest City is a very careful company,” Moore says. “It’s in this project for the long haul.”

Meanwhile, no one is really certain how the new downtown Skokie will eventually look and feel.

Van Dusen, 64, who in addition to his part-time post as mayor is a professor of history and American government at Oakton Community College, envisions it as a modern village square that is a center of civic and cultural activities for residents. It will also be more densely populated, with more apartment or condo buildings sprinkled along the main streets. Miles, the owner of the Village Inn and the head of an association of 50 downtown merchants, says he likes that idea, but he adds that more incentives and planning will be needed to bring independently owned entertainment venues, stores, and small businesses into the mix.

Neither man wants to see chains and franchise stores dominate the area, and both agree that a lot more work needs to be done before Skokie’s downtown is saved. “For years, it’s been kind of a depressed area,” says Miles. “Now it’s getting exciting.”

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