Highwood should be magnet for millennials, foodies, study concludes

A 2008 artist's rendering shows an earlier vision for condo and mixed retail development at the former Hotel Moraine site in Highwood. | File
A 2008 artist's rendering shows an earlier vision for condo and mixed retail development at the former Hotel Moraine site in Highwood. | File

The City of Highwood should capitalize on its reputation as a food destination and market itself to Gen X-ers and millennials looking for a vibrant and comparatively affordable North Shore community in which to live.

Those were two of the themes that emerged from the Highwood Downtown Projects Guidebook drafted over the past year by the City of Highwood and Teska Associates, an urban planning consultancy.

“There is a quirkiness about Highwood that makes people always want to come back,” said Jodi Mariano, one of several Teska consultants who summarized the draft during a public hearing Wednesday before the Highwood Plan Commission.

“It is not manufactured. (Highwood) doesn’t look like any other North Shore destination. We don’t want to lose that in the design schemes.”

Teska principal Konstantine Savoy spoke of the potential to capitalize on the city’s reputation for dining and entertainment.

“We developed this phrase, ‘Everything food should be about Highwood,’” said Savoy, the lead planner for the project. “It is more than just coming to dine in Highwood. Could we get a cooking school here? There are hundreds of groups that do culinary tours. That should be happening in Highwood.”

Savoy suggested that specialty food shops and high-end cookware retailers also should be part of Highwood’s future.

The planners believe Highwood holds the greatest potential to attract young residents in their 20s and 30s of any North Shore community north of Evanston.

“These are young professionals who work at Baxter and Abbott labs,” said Savoy. “They probably live out in some no-name subdivision. They want to be in a cool, hip … place where there is food, dining, entertainment, bars.”

Savoy said these young professionals have good incomes that could support quality residential development located near the train station.

The playbook outlines a vision for better utilizing public spaces in the downtown area as funding becomes available. It also articulates the city’s thinking to potential developers and investors who may wish to acquire and redevelop property in and near Highwood’s downtown.

The guide identifies 10 “short-term opportunity” sites, including the site of the shuttered Hotel Moraine at 700 North Sheridan Road, which is viewed as an eyesore at the prominent northern gateway to the business district.

The 10 priority sites are considered ripe for turnover because they’re vacant or up for sale, or because they could potentially jump-start other changes in the downtown area.

“Whether it is a short-term site, or a long-term site, the property would only be redeveloped if the current owner was willing to sell,” explained Teska planner Todd Vanadilok. The playbook does not represent a city commitment to acquire or condemn the properties identified as opportunity sites, city officials stress.

The shuttered Hotel Moraine has been a high city priority since before its closing eight years ago. Plans to construct the “Highwood Towers” ignited controversy in 2007 and were scaled back several times before the recession brought talks of redevelopment to a halt.

The draft guidebook, which will go before the plan commission and the Highwood City Council, suggests that the Hotel Moraine could be redeveloped with two seven-story apartment buildings containing 102 luxury units on the western side of the property. Two stories would be devoted to parking, topped by five stories of dwelling units. Residents of some upper-floor units would have views of Lake Michigan.

Highwood resident Christine Krol expressed shock and dismay that apartment buildings of such height were part of the guidebook, given the fierce opposition in 2007. “I can’t believe we would ever be talking about taller, higher buildings anymore,” Krol said. “I am surprised we are proposing seven stories.”

Property owner Bob Pasquesi said plans and mock-ups tend to look good in theory, but he thought they overlooked some business realities.

“Business is tough in the winter,” said Pasquesi.

Look at Highland Park,” he added, referring to the vacancies impacting Highwood’s neighbor. “You are not Palm Beach.”

Resident Enrique Perez wanted to know what the cost would be to Highwood taxpayers to implement the proposals outlined in the playbook. City officials said the concepts are only ideas at this point.

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