Skokie in 2016: A look at some of the newsmakers

Niles High School teacher Pankaj Sharma, second from right, shared his Golden Apple Award honor with students in April 2016. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)
Niles High School teacher Pankaj Sharma, second from right, shared his Golden Apple Award honor with students in April 2016. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)

Skokie welcomes new restaurants, retailers

Economic development in Skokie in 2016 came down to the pithy cliche of “out with the old and in with the new.”

The former home of the iconic Jack’s restaurant at Touhy and Laramie avenues, already closed when the year began, became part of the property for a new shopping plaza called “Jack’s Corner.”

The Skokie village board Feb. 1 signed off on final plans for the plaza, which included a new drive-thru Starbucks — which opened in late December.

When Bob’s Discount Furniture opened earlier in the year just south of Westfield Old Orchard mall, it completed the rehabilitation of a retail strip that had been vacant not long ago.

The furniture store, along with four other stores that opened in Chicago at the same time, marked the first Midwest entries for the East Coast-based furniture retailer.

“We’ve identified Illinois as a major market for us outside of where we’ve traditionally operated,” said regional manager Todd Peter, who oversaw all of the Illinois stores.

Skokie’s first Culver’s restaurant with a drive-thru lane, located in the 9400 block of Skokie Boulevard, was approved by the Skokie village board early in the year. The restaurant will sit near a small shopping plaza facing Skokie Boulevard

Many hours before the Skokie Jollibeee’s restaurant opened in late July, a line of at least 400 people snaked beyond and around the building and toward the full parking lot.

“We expected a line, but to be honest, not to begin this early,” Jose Minana Jr., group president of Jollibee Foods Corp. for North America, said at that time about the line. “For these guys at the front to get here at 9:30 last night, we’re really humbled by that.”

The new Filipino-based chain, which made its Midwest debut in Skokie, is located in the Touhy Marketplace shopping center in the 3500 block of Touhy Avenue. Jollibee first began as an ice cream parlor in the Philippines, company officials said, and has grown to more than 750 restaurants and stores.

In downtown Skokie, the Euro Echo Cafe, 7919 Lincoln Ave., located across from the revamped Skokie Theatre, opened Memorial Day weekend. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and allows for eating outside on an adjoining patio with tables and umbrellas when the weather accommodates.

One of the village’s most popular and highest regarded restaurants announced it would be leaving downtown for larger digs in Evanston.

Kabul House owner Akmal Qazi said the family tried to stay in Skokie, but repeated efforts to find a larger space did not work out, forcing the move to 2424 Dempster St. just over the Skokie border.

Qazi announced Kabul House’s downtown Skokie location would close at the end of summer and the new Evanston restaurant would open up in days if even that. But the closing and reopening are still pending.

Several criminal incidents see no suspect charged, or even identified

The body of Catherine Benyamin, 31, was found the morning of March 24 inside her Skokie apartment in the 8200 block of Keating Avenue. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Police then began a search for her 10-month-old son, Joshua Powell, and the boy’s father, Jermaine Powell. The boy was dropped off later on March 24 at a church near Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road in Chicago, police said

Jermaine Powell, 38, was arrested March 27 in the 2700 block of West Jackson Boulevard, according to police. He was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing to property and also had a warrant issued against him for a parole violation.

Powell was wanted for questioning in the slaying of his child’s mother, but charges were still not filed against him in that case as 2016 drew to a close, according to authorities. Powell is in Cook County Jail, however, held without bond on a robbery charge.

In other 2016 Skokie police news, a man was found dead Oct. 8 in the driver’s seat of a burning car.

The man was identified as Thomas Damnitz, 50, of the 9100 block of Lawler Avenue. He lived on the same block where the vehicle was discovered, according to the address provided.

Two bank robberies occurred in Skokie in 2016.

Police said FBI agents and task force officers responded July 6 to reports of a bank robbery at First American Bank, 4611 Golf Road. Police called the incident “a non-takeover robbery” in which no weapon was displayed by the suspect.

The suspect has still not been caught, according to authorities.

That’s different than the armed bank robbery Dec. 13 at First Bank and Trust, 8047 Skokie Blvd. police responded to.

The suspect, identified as Gary Gaines, of the 200 block of North Ridge Avenue in Evanston, took $9,999 from a teller at the bank after displaying a silver handgun, according to a criminal complaint filed in court by the FBI. Police said they credited a GPS tracker the teller put with the stolen money for aiding in catching Gaines within minutes of the hold up. Gaines was caught by Skokie police in a residential area not far from the bank, after a brief foot chase, authorities said.

Skokie school districts approve building expansions

Two Skokie school districts in 2016 moved forward with major school building additions even if they were green-lighted in different ways.

A significant addition to Skokie School District 73.5’s Elizabeth Meyer School (along with a smaller one at Middleton School) never went before voters. A small group of residents tried to get the district’s addition plans on the ballot but they failed to get enough signatures to force a referendum.

The additions are estimated to cost $10.3 million. Of the the total cost, $9 million of it is for Meyer, and the expansion will nearly double the size of the school, officials say.

Under the district’s plans, the 23,000-square-foot addition will extend the school to the north and then sharply turn west with a new library at the elbow of an “L-shape.”

The Meyer project calls for a one-story addition featuring seven classrooms including a room for art and music as well as a new gym, a library, a gross motor room for special education students and three small instructional offices. The Middleton project calls for one multi-purpose room to be added.

It took approval from East Prairie School District 73 voters in Skokie during the Nov. 8 election to allow the district to build a new school. Voters approved a referendum that authorized a $47 million bond issue.

The referendum passed decisively.

The vote followed a lengthy process that included multiple town hall meetings with residents of the one-school district.

The school board in August voted to put the bond issue on the November ballot.

Dist. 73 officials said the original 92,000-square-feet building was built in eight different sections and would have required about $17 million in maintenance work to address health and safety issues.

The school district is working with STR Partners LLC for the architecture and design work, and Gilbane Building Company for construction.

According to district officials, one of biggest changes with the new building would be a new pick-up and drop-off system for students.

The school district owns three properties on Dobson Street across from the school.

School is expected to remain open during construction , which will be done in phases, officials said.

‘Golden’ year for Niles high school teacher

Niles North High School teacher Pankaj Sharma was announced as a Golden Apple winner in April.

According to Sharma’s students, colleagues, and now members of the Golden Apple evaluation team, this 14-year Niles Township High School District 219 teacher makes students want to make the world a better place.

“It was obvious that there was no one who wasn’t positively impacted by him in some way,” said educator Monica Gil, who was on the Golden Apple team. “He had a positive impact it seems like on everyone.”

Sharma, who graduated from Niles Township High School District 219 and has been an instructor at Niles North or sister Niles West his entire career, teaches U.S. History, government, civics and modern African and Latin American histories.

“Sharma uses primary sources and discussion to imagine what the people during (earlier) times would have felt as events unfolded,” the committee said in announcing him as a Golden Apple winner. “He has a genuine enthusiasm for history and an authentic concern for his students, which is apparent in his classroom.”

The non-profit Golden Apple organization says it is committed to “celebrating and developing great teachers with the ability and passion to make life-changing differences in the lives of students.”

Recipients of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching come from a pool of more than 400 nominations throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, according to Golden Apple.

“It’s a very humbling thing,” the teacher said when he was surprised in his classroom with the award. “It’s a very nice thing. It’s a nice honor for our school and for our students. For me, it’s very surprising. ”

Some park district renovation plans moved ahead, or stalled

The Skokie Park District had a stop-and-start year in 2016 regarding major projects.

A big disappointment for the park district in 2016 came from the elimination — or at the very least long postponement — of a long-standing dream: development of Skokie Sports Park East near Oakton Street and McCormick Boulevard.

In spring, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which owns the property, told Skokie park district officials that plans for Skokie Sports Park East are “now on hold indefinitely,” said park district Executive Director John Ohrlund

Skokie Park District administrators said they were informed by the water district that the property just east of the existing Skokie Sports Park had become a potential site for a phosphate treatment operation.

The park district, which leases two adjoining pieces of land from the MWRD, had been planning a multi-use sports facility on the 17-acre eastern half — waiting out an environmental cleanup of the site that had taken a few years to complete.

Skokie Sports Park’s golf range, miniature golf course and batting facility continue to operate on the west.

“One of the problems you run into when you don’t own the property and somebody else does is that they may have some different needs for it,” Ohrlund said.

The Skokie Park District had been narrowing in on a plan – both for the design of the park and for how it would be funded.

On the other hand, it was full speed ahead in 2016 for the renovation of the park district’s Weber Leisure Center.

Park board commissioners approved moving forward with a design plan for renovating the center, estimated to cost about $3.5 million.

According to park district officials, the extensive renovation throughout the building will increase program opportunities and revenue, improve customer service and control and provide an “aesthetic refresh” with budget consciousness in mind.

A smaller park district project authorized for 2016 was the renovation of Winnebago Park in the 8300 block of Knox Avenue. It was approved after neighbors complained about conditions there.

The park district renovates parks on a rotating basis and bumped up Winnebago on the schedule after the residents’ concerns were voiced, officials said.

The renovated park is expected to be ready in 2017 by late spring or early summer.

Read more at Skokie Review…