Looking north on Sherman Avenue from about Grove Street                      Rendering from City of Evanston packet

After much debate on procedure, policy and precedent, aldermen voted on Nov. 25 not to grant an extension of time to Focus Development for the project at 708 Church St. Remarks from residents, most of whom opposed either the tower or the extension, paled before the drama from the dias.

In 2009, City Council approved a three-year extension of the project, which at that time included ground-floor retail, four flours of parking and more than 200 condominium residences above that. The proposed height of the 35-story building was 385 feet.

As it now stands, if a building permit is not obtained by Dec. 31, the planned development for the project will expire.

Focus Not an Owner

Focus Development had requested a three-year extension of time to obtain building permits and begin construction of the project, within which time, they said, they would “tweak the project” and then begin construction. The request was debated at the Planning and Development Committee meeting, then forwarded to City Council without a recommendation. During the Planning and Development Committee meeting, Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, closely and persistently questioned both Tim Anderson, head of Focus Development, and Focus’s attorney, David Reifman of DLA Piper.

Ald. Wilson elicited the information that Focus does not own the property and does not have an “ownership interest” in it. Further, Focus does not have a contract for the property. Neither Focus nor its attorney would disclose the owner’s identity, saying only that the property is owned by a trust with 11 beneficiaries, none of whom is Mr. Anderson or Focus development.

“We do not have a contract,” said Mr. Anderson. “We have an understanding with the ownership to negotiate the contract.”

Mr. Reifman said once the extension was granted, Focus planned to become the contract purchaser of the property. Responding to Ald. Wilson’s questions, he said Focus’s option on the property had expired but, “if the [project] is extended, the contract will be reinstated so that Focus can continue with the project and develop it.”

Whether one or more of the beneficiaries of the trust attended the meeting is not clear, as no one spoke up as being so.

‘Simple Majority’ Prevails

At the Council meeting, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said her ruling was that a supermajority – that is, six votes – would be needed to approve the extension of time.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said Council had granted extensions to other planned developments with only a simple majority needed to approve them. She said, “I think that [considering] the number of extensions we’ve given, to not give an extension of time in this case shows prejudice and a lot of bias.”

Ald. Rainey moved to overrule Mayor Tisdahl’s ruling. Ald. Rainey’s motion prevailed so the request for the extension then required only a simple majority to pass.

Policy and Precedent

“Normally a planned development is supposed to apply for a year,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. “So when this was approved in 2009, they got a four-year extension. Has there been any other planned development that has gotten four years at the beginning?”

Mark Muenzer, community development director, said, “Not that I’m aware.”

“Have we ever denied the extension of a planned development?” Ald. Rainey asked.

“Not that I’m aware,” said Mr. Muenzer.

Mr. Anderson of Focus Development said he has worked on projects in Evanston for 17 years. “I stand on our record that we can deliver quality projects to Evanston. … We’re experiencing the worst real estate crisis since the Great Depression. … We’d like to be given time to bring this project to fruition so the City can reap the public benefits. …

“Most of the objections are about the extension, not the project. I come before you to ask you to consider what’s right and what’s just about this extension. … We have made extensive investments in Evanston over 17 years. I think we have a track record of developing projects that bring quality to the City and are an asset to the community, and we want to be given a chance to do this again.”

Mr. Reifman said he was not aware of the regulation that would require a supermajority to approve the extension.

“No visible progress has been made with the development of the property,” said Ald. Wilson. “My concern is that nothing’s happened. I don’t have a sense that something else is going to happen.”

“This is just an extension of time – just more time to do the same project,” said Ald. Rainey.

Ald. Wilson said, “To me the operative aspect is that it’s a planned development and it’s a component of an overall plan. And there are other people interested in developing other parcels of the property in the downtown area, and what happens here is relevant to what they decide to do or not to do. For five years, people who are interested in doing something else are … operating under this – I don’t want to call it a cloud – but it’s uncertainty. … So it seems to me we need to devise a revised plan – which I’m okay with. A different plan is acceptable, because we need to do something. But a straight extension for something that’s probably not going to happen isn’t a plan.”

 “I guess without an extension, there’s no opportunity to revisit the issue you’re raising right now,” Mr. Reifman responded. He noted that Council had granted extensions of time to the developments now being built on Central Street and at Emerson/Oak/Maple. He also said The Mather had seven years to build its new buildings.

“Very notably,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, “this was the longest time period that we ever gave when Council [originally] approved the planned development. And those other two that you are citing did not have a five-year time period.”

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said the entire length of time from approval to completion – if the extension of time were granted – would be about eight years. “The terms of the planned development will have gone stale. We have fewer vacancies in the downtown area than before. … This is an extraordinary project by any measure and eventually some project will be built [on that site because of] everything that made it so attractive to Focus seven years ago.”

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said, “Extending [the time] three more years could be very dangerous – if the unknown hasn’t already hurt some of the developments.

“I did vote for [the Central Street and the Emerson/Oak/Maple extensions], and I thought they were good at the time. Looking back, I don’t see it so much as precedent, but maybe as a trend, that we really ought to look at … I do think we need to deny this request,” Ald. Tendam added.

Final Vote

Ald. Rainey, a vocal supporter of the project, then modified the request for the extension of time to one year. The motion for an extension of time was defeated 5-4, with Aldermen Fiske, Wynne, Wilson, Tendam and Grover voting against the extension of time and Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Delores Holmes, 5th Ward; Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward and Ald. Rainey voting for the extension. 

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...