Despite developer Thomas Roszak’s financial and legal problems and the flaws in the Sienna Court development project, both the City of Evanston and the Center for Independent Futures (CIF) plan to continue their relationships with him for at least the time being. CIF provides supportive housing and other services for persons with a disability.

Two of most signification flaws in the project are the hole in the ground where two additional buildings were originally planned and the steep access ramp from Oak Avenue into the project. The Illinois Attorney General has sued Mr. Roszak for failing to make the project accessible (see accompanying story). And CIF clients may also be pursuing legal remedies.

CIF’s involvement with Mr. Roszak began about three years ago, when he reportedly approached the organization with a proposal to make several units in Sienna not only accessible but affordable for CIF-approved clients. At that time the City’s affordable-housing ordinance mandated that developers of projects with more than 25 units dedicate 10 percent of the units as affordable. (Since then the ordinance has been amended to allow developers either to make a contribution to the City’s affordable-housing fund or to develop the units on-site.)

CIF worked to obtain financing for five persons with a disability to purchase units. Subsequently CIF clients purchased another 10 units in the Sienna development, said Dr. Jane Doyle, executive director of CIF.

But problems arose. In spring of 2007 a portion of the parking structure collapsed, causing a temporary evacuation of residents and leaving an unsightly heap of dirt buttressing a garage wall. The following year, after two of the four condominium buildings had been built – containing a total of more than 100 units – Mr. Roszak said he would be unable to complete the project as planned and petitioned the City to be allowed to build a hotel instead. Some owners protested at that time, saying they had purchased their units in anticipation of only residential, not transient, housing in the development.

CIF clients attended several City meetings in the spring of 2008 to voice their concern about the possibility of the hotel and to describe the difficulties they faced in getting to and from their apartments.

As examples, they said the sidewalk adjacent to the driveway is very steep, making walking difficult and access by wheelchair nearly impossible. In addition, getting to the north building involves taking an elevator in the south building parking garage then navigating the garage (some persons in wheelchairs) amidst moving traffic to get to the elevator in their building. They said these were accessibility issues the developer should have addressed.

“It’s a long, steep entrance,” said Dr. Doyle, “and then, since the access to the one building is through the garage of the other building, the clients have to negotiate their way through 200 feet of the garage.” Not only are there parked cars, she said but sometimes there is moving traffic. One of the CIF clients who has to travel the parking lot is blind, she said; another is in a wheelchair – “to navigate [the parking lot] is extremely difficult.”

One year later, the hotel is on hold; accessibility issues have not been addressed; the Illinois Attorney General’s office has sued Mr. Roszak for his failure to make the Sienna project ADA accessible; and Mr. Roszak has filed for personal bankruptcy.

The Attorney General’s complaint against Mr. Roszak and his related businesses, and the hopes of creating a CIF community within the Sienna community are somewhat frazzled. Dr. Doyle said the accessibility problems – the ramp and the remote elevator – interfere with living and enjoyment. Otherwise, the clients like the place and its closeness to downtown Evanston. In addition, a CIF “community builder” lives in each building, offering support and facilitating communications within the group.

The City and CIF both appear somewhat stymied about the next direction. Some of the clients may take legal action against Mr. Roszak, though Dr. Doyle has said CIF itself is not planning to do so. In addition, she said, CIF will continue to monitor the situation and to continue to encourage the CIF community at Sienna.

Similarly, Jill Chambers of the City’s community development department told the RoundTable, “We’re still continuing to work with Mr. Roszak.” Like CIF and the Attorney General’s office, the City is focusing on the ramp. Two sets of accessibility standards – state and federal – apply to the ramp, and the City has adopted only the state standards.

“The ramp is rather steep,” Ms. Chambers said, adding that in an all-out emergency, fire department vehicles would be able to rescue any disabled persons and others would be able to get to safety by themselves. Nonetheless, she said, the ramp does not comply with the City code, which incorporates International Building Code (IBC) Illinois standards.

Ms. Chambers said the City had advised Mr. Roszak “to get an interpretation [of the standards for the ramp] from the state. We suggested that the condo owners go to the state [as well].”

Ms. Chambers said the City will continue to work with Mr. Roszak. “The hole is a significant concern, but we hope to keep an open relationship,” she said.

AG Sues Roszak

The Illinois Attorney General filed a complaint against Thomas Roszak and his related businesses (collectively “”Roszak””) on June 3, alleging that the condominium projects they are developing at 1720 and 1740 North Oak Avenue fail to provide accessible dwelling units and common areas for persons with a disability. The condominium projects, called Sienna Court Condominiums, contain two buildings with more than 100 dwelling units. The complaint alleges that Roszak approached Center for Independent Futures (CIF), an Evanston nonprofit organization that facilitates housing for persons with disabilities, about creating a community of persons with disabilities at Sienna. He allegedly told CIF that customized condominiums could be developed for persons with disabilities. Based on these representations, CIF allegedly secured no less than 12 purchasers for Roszak. By selling units to clients of CIF, Roszak satisfied the requirements of an ordinance requiring that ten percent of the units in the development be affordable to persons of certain income levels. The initial plans for the project contemplated that there would be four buildings, with access to the buildings via stairs on the north side, a very steep driveway on the east side, and level access only from Ridge Avenue on the west side. Roszak, however, did not develop the west side of the lot with two additional buildings, and it remains an excavated pit. “”As a result, there is no accessible route that allows the several unit owners with various disabilities to safely enter or exit the building,”” alleges the complaint. “”To enter from the street level, residents must either trespass through a parking garage to which they have no right of entry, or enter through a garage door that was intended solely for vehicular traffic and no safeguards for pedestrians,”” the complaint alleges. “”Once inside the parking garage, residents must travel on a long, confusing, and dangerous route that includes steep inclines, temporary ramps, multiple elevators, and vehicular ways.”” The complaint alleges violations of state and federal laws and seeks an order compelling Roszak to address the accessibility violations and to pay civil penalties. “”The accessibility standards have been in place for more that 20 years,”” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a prepared statement. “”There is no excuse for putting residents and visitors with disabilities in danger by failing to ensure that there is an accessible path in and out of these complexes.”” On June 4, Mr. Roszak filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy under chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code. The petition estimates his assets are less that $10 million and his liabilities in excess of $50 million. Nonetheless, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office told the RoundTable, “”The Attorney General’s office will continue to pursue all means available to protect the rights of people with disabilities and to ensure that there is an accessible path in and out of [the Sienna] complexes for residents and visitors.”” Calls to Mr. Rozack’s office and to his attorney’s office for a comment on the lawsuit and bankruptcy filing were not returned.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...