Central Street Neighborhood: Evanston, Illinois


Combine an edgy urban vibe with a small-town pace and sensibility and the result is Evanston's Central Street neighborhood. A traditional neighborhood in many respects, Central Street also is a regional destination with an eclectic mix of homegrown businesses and eateries.

Designated Area

The neighborhood is bounded by the Village of Wilmette to the north, Colfax Street to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, and Gross Point Road and Crawford Avenue to the west.

The Central Street neighborhood includes single-family detached homes with front yards, tall trees, and well-utilized sidewalks. Photo courtesy City of Evanston.

Planning Excellence

Located 18 miles north of Chicago, Central Street is home to Evanston Hospital, with 3,500 employees, and Northwestern University's athletic facilities. On fall weekends, the street turns purple as thousands of Wildcat fans flock to football games at Ryan Field. Despite its proximity to the university, Central Street is distinctive and unique. It is not just another campus town area.

Central Street is a waterfront community with numerous historic and recreational resources. Grosse Point Lighthouse, built in 1873 following several shipwrecks on Lake Michigan, rises into view toward the eastern end of Central Street. This National Historic Landmark — one of more than 100 local or national landmarks in the neighborhood — is undergoing a $350,000 renovation. The adjacent Lighthouse Beach is a popular summer destination for residents and visitors. Winter activities include outdoor skating at Ackerman Park and sledding at Lovelace Park. Perkins Woods, Cook County's smallest forest preserve, is a bird watching hotspot. And, Lawson Park features Noah's Playground for Everyone, a $400,000 accessible play space that opened in 2008.

Bicyclists and pedestrians — both visitors and those from the neighborhood's many single- and multi-family residences — find Central Street welcoming. A network of sidewalks, now being widened and improved based on recommendations in the 2007 Central Street Master Plan, is shaded by mature trees and lined with picturesque store fronts. The plan has resulted in the addition of traffic calming features — such as bump-outs at intersections, dedicated bike lanes, and bike parking.

Long served by public transportation, Central Street boasts both Metra commuter rail and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) rapid transit stations. Two CTA bus routes traverse Central Street, transporting shoppers, workers, and middle- and high-school students, eliminating the need for school buses. A suburban Pace bus route also passes through the neighborhood.

Noting the neighborhood's transportation assets, Evanston's 2000 comprehensive plan encourages transit-oriented development. The recently opened Central Station Apartments, a LEED Silver mixed-use project, features 80 residential units, 11,000 square feet of retail, and a car-sharing parking space.

Several earlier multi-story, mixed-use structures, built to the lot line and larger in scale than surrounding commercial buildings, raised concern among residents about the potential for overdevelopment and loss of the neighborhood's "European Village" charm. In 2005, the city responded by amending its zoning ordinance, reducing building heights and residential densities for mixed-use structures in certain districts. Instrumental to the success of neighborhood planning is the Central Street Neighbors Association, a resident advocacy group. The Central Street Business Association not only supports planning efforts but programs community and retail events.

A Fourth of July parade featuring unique floats draws many visitors and residents to the Central Street neighborhood. Photo courtesy City of Evanston.

Defining Characteristics, Features

History, Planning and Design

  • Father Jacques Marquette, one of first two Europeans to traverse what is now Chicago, camped on and mapped Lake Michigan's Grosse Point (1673)
  • Platted as the Village of North Evanston (1868); annexed by Evanston (1874); growth guided by city's numerous comprehensive plans (1916-2000). Completely built out; only redevelopment options remain
  • Illinois Historic Structures Survey of Evanston (1972) identified historic buildings in neighborhood; 100-plus structures — cottages, mansions, school, municipal water plant, church, lighthouse, and gas station — designated as local or national landmarks
  • Construction of mixed-use buildings to lot line raised concern about potential for over-development (2004); city amends zoning code (2005) to reduce building heights, lower residential densities
  • Central Street Master Plan (2007) results in streetscape rehab, including improved sidewalks, added traffic-calming features, dedicated bicycle lane
  • Adoption of two zoning ordinances (2008) lays foundation for use of form-based zoning in Central Street commercial area, allows a block-by-block approach that better accounts for existing conditions

Active and Engaged Citizenry

  • Central Street Neighbors Association evolves as a result of Central Street Master Plan public participation process (2006)
  • Central Street Business Association includes 50-plus retailers; programs and markets events, such as sidewalk sales, green market, holiday open house
  • Nonprofit Evanston 4th of July Association plans Independence Day parade, activities, fireworks; event held annually since 1922, attracts 15,000 people to Central Street
  • Lincolnwood Garden Club and the City of Evanston sponsor Central Street Garden Fair in Independence Park; proceeds from 64-year-old event benefit beautification projects throughout city
  • Privately owned Curt's Café provides job and life-skills training to at-risk, young adults (ages 15-22); job placement assistance offered to those successfully completing food preparation and service training

Central Street's business district draws residents, Northwestern University students, and visitors from not only the neighborhood, but all of Evanston. Photo courtesy City of Evanston.

Hometown and Destination

  • Pedestrian- and transit-friendly with local businesses along 2.6 miles of Central Street
  • Niche retail includes specialty foods, regionally renowned spice and cooking-oil shops; bakeries, delis
  • Strong town-and-gown relationship; Northwestern University's Ryan Field and Welch-Ryan Arena attract 400,000-plus fans annually to football, basketball, volleyball games
  • Employment center; Evanston Hospital (circa 1891) has 3,500 on staff, serves 435,000 patients yearly, ranks among nation's top 100 hospitals (Becker's Hospital Review and Truven Health Analytics)
  • Transit hub; served by Metra and CTA rail and CTA and Pace buses
  • Accessible to walkers and bicyclists; widened sidewalks, mature trees and picturesque storefronts welcome those on foot; dedicated bike lanes enhance travel for those on bicycles
  • Year-round recreation — swimming, bird watching, ice skating, sledding — at neighborhood's beach, forest preserve, and parks, one of which houses a family-friendly accessible playground
  • Cultural offerings include Grosse Point Lighthouse (circa 1873), a National Historic Landmark, and Mitchell Museum of the American Indian (circa 1977)