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My architectural firm specialized in multi-story housing. I was the architect of buildings at 1110, 1150 and 1240 Lake Shore Drive, Belmont and Sheridan, and Gordon Terrace and Marine Drive in Chicago, and 1640 and 1500 Sheridan Road in Wilmette, to list a few. My developer clients deliberately avoided the City of Evanston.
In 1985 the building climate was changing and Evanston asked developers to submit schemes to replace the parking lot on the east side ofChicago Avenue
between Church and Oak. The submission by Rescorp for which I was the architect was accepted.
The project was to create a 600-car city parking garage and a 200-unit rental apartment building with 200 additional parking spaces to be built on the air rights of the garage that was to remain City-owned.
Any building had to meet the zoning permitted height of 85 feet and camouflage the garage alongChicago Avenue
as much as possible.
Though we asked for minor variations (a few feet along the side-yards and 5 feet along the rear-yard), we were forced to defend our design in appearances in over 30 meetings over the course of 13 months because the neighbors were furious at the idea of a high rise in their back yard.
The project has always been extremely successful. It was 100% rented months before completion, mostly to Northwestern students and some empty-nesters. Unfortunately, despite the success my client was going broke. What should have taken two to three months for approval took over 13, and the ten-month delay coincided with a major change in the mortgage market. “To get a loan we had to sell our soul,” said my client, who lost money for the first three years and regained a small profit when the project was sold to a new owner.
And herein lies a lesson for all municipalities: Timing is critical.
Citizens deserve openness and a chance to be heard and to participate, but if these components of democracy are abused, they can become antithetical for development. The triple-level approval process (SPARC, Plan Commission, City Council), with its limitless patience toward opponents who organize and hold up the process, sends a clear message – if the process can be drawn out endlessly, the project can be destroyed. The best case in point is the Kendall College site.
There is a price a city pays. Look what happened at the southeast corner of Chicago and Davis: The stores emptied in anticipation of the Optima apartment building. The building was killed and stores stand empty. Look what is happening on the west side of Orrington, south of Church, and the stores that emptied in anticipation of the Tower.
Downtown Evanston is already a collection of towers, whether opponents like it or not. It is immaterial whether a building is 25 or 35 stories — downtown is urban, not rural, as some might wish. Towers, density, and people on the street not only add revenue and business income, but liveliness and security as well.
Opponents are too late. One cannot turn back the clock. It is time for the City to realize that there is a limit to protest and argument. Either a developer is treated fairly or Evanston will once again become an area to be avoided by any serious investor.