The developers of the 49-story tower proposed for 708 Church St. came “unembarrassed [and] not defensive in terms of urban design” to the March 10 Planning and Development (P&D) committee meeting, presenting what they termed the “capstone project for the redevelopment of downtown Evanston.”

Equally unapologetic were the dozens of residents who attended the March 17 P&D meeting to support the tower or to urge the City Council not to approve it.

Several identified themselves as members of evanstoncrd.org, Evanston Coalition for Responsible Development. Evanston CRD has distributed lawn signs like the one above throughout the City and maintains a website petition, with about 200 signatures opposing the tower as of Monday.

The Project

As now conceived, the project includes both retail and residential components, said architect Larry Booth, whose firm Booth Hansen is architect for the project. The first four stories would house retail shops and residential, but not commercial, parking. The fifth through the 49th stories would be set back and would comprise the slender residential tower with condominiums and penthouses.

On the fourth story would be a green roof garden and a “wind spoiler” to dissipate wind and minimize its effects on pedestrians below,
he said.

Mr. Booth also said the developers had commissioned shadow studies that showed no large shadow effect beyond the downtown buildings with the possible exception of late afternoons in some summer months. The traffic study, said Eric Russell of KLOA, a company that has conducted studies for several other developments in Evanston, showed only about a two-second traffic delay in the downtown area from the project.

Mr. Booth also explained the evolution of the project from a short building – “the shortest building that would work economically – and inched our way up until we got to a form that had the shape we wanted. … There is a trade-off between setbacks and height.” The original building was a “blocky box in the middle of downtown Evanston,” but now “there are 40-foot setbacks on all sides, and that is how it got to be 49 stories,” Mr. Booth said.

Tim Anderson of Focus Development, which will be the general contractor for the project, said the development team – Focus Development and Klutznick-Fisher (James Klutznick and Morey Fisher) – “understands Evanston” and plans to create a “synergy between residential downtown living and the businesses downtown.”

Mr. Anderson spoke of the “lifestyle elements” already available in downtown Evanston – the shopping, the retail, the bookstores and the movie theaters – and said Evanston needs continually to enhance these features to compete with Westfield Mall (formerly Old Orchard), which is adding these types of enhancements.

Mr. Booth said, “Evanston is one of the few places in this country where you can live in the City and walk to everything – entertainment, work, dining. … This is the future.”

Requests From the City

For their project to work economically and aesthetically, the developers say they need to build up to 49 stories. They are requesting a zoning reclassification of the area and exemptions from the height allowances so they can build a 523-foot tower; and from parking requirements so they can build fewer spaces than the zoning ordinance requires.

Public Benefits

Steve Friedland, attorney for the developers, described the public benefits of the tower: generation of $25 to $30 million in tax-increment income; purchase and preservation of the Hahn building; a contribution of $880,000 to the City’s affordable-housing fund; certification by the U.S. Green Building Council as a silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design); enhancement of the retail core; an opportunity to redevelop Fountain Square (including a “meaningful additional contribution to the City on redesign and redevelopment”) and the architectural quality of the building itself.

Two of those benefits listed by the developer, though, are within the purview of the City Council rather than the developer. First, the contribution to the City’s affordable housing fund is mandated by City ordinance. Second, the “protection” of the Hahn building from further development is not dependent upon the developers’ purchase of the building, said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, but “is up to the Council. We’ll protect it.”

In addition, Mr. Friedland said the tower would be one of only six privately owned silver-LEED certified buildings in Illionis. Already in Evanston the Ford technology building on the Northwestern campus has that certification, and recently completed Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue is seeking gold LEED certification. The Winthrop Club, under construction on Maple Avenue, is also seeking silver LEED certification.

Pressed by some aldermen, Mr. Friedland and his clients said that, although they consider the rehab of the Hahn building to be a public benefit, they will not be able to do it without $3 million from the City. Ald. Wynne said, “I don’t see how our paying you to protect the Hahn building is a public benefit.”

The Plan Commission attached several conditions to its 4-3 recommendation of the proposal. “We support them all except one,” Mr. Friedland said at the March 17 meeting. “Retaining the four-story base, adding a second story of office and retail and one floor of underground parking doesn’t work,” he said.

Public Comment

Several people, including local businessmen, spoke in favor of the proposed tower. Chris Mailing of Turin bicycle shop on Davis Street said, “Evanston is well positioned for the future. When we get serious about global warming or when the price of gas reaches $10 per gallon, downtown environments like Evanston will be immediately popular. Twenty, 40, 60 stories – it doesn’t mater. We need to continue building the vitality of our downtown core.”

Jim Marsh said, “This tower doesn’t scare me. … I’m very excited about the future of Evanston.”

Those who opposed the project said they did so because of its residential component, which they thought would add to an already glutted and slowed real estate market, or because of its size and character, which, they said, does not fit with the current downtown.

Speaking for the Evanston CRD, John Kennedy presented an economic analysis that showed the City would be better off economically if it fostered local businesses rather than the chain stores that tenant large developments such as the one proposed. Some of the small shops in the 708 Church building would have to relocate.

“This is not about height,” he said. “This is about … benefits to the City and the City’s revenue stream.” Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, who chairs the Planning and Development Committee, asked City Manager Julia Carroll to prepare a staff analysis of the Evanston CRD presentation.

Albert Hunter, former chair of the Plan Commission, said his final term on the commission expired just two weeks before the divisive 4-3 vote that recommended the tower proposal conditionally to the City Council. “My vote would have been ‘no,’ he said. “There would have been a 4-4 split decision and the proposal would not have been recommended to you.”

Referring to several condominium projects “approved by Council that are not going forward,” Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, asked the developers, “What makes your project recession-proof?”

Mr. Friedland said, “We recognize the cyclical nature of real estate and feel our pricing will attract the market.” He added, “We’ve looked at the condos for sale on the multiple listing service and we believe we’re in competition with only about 164 condos.”

Aldermen also asked about the rental occupancy of Sherman Plaza, a project by these same developers. Focus Development’s Mr. Anderson said the project was “sold out.” He said about 35 percent of the units are rented, and a member of the audience who lives in Sherman Plaza said the number is greater than that.

The Planning and Development Committee will continue its discussion of the proposed tower and make a recommendation to City Council.