View of the proposed building looking west on Emerson Street.      Submitted rendering

On Dec. 9, the City’s Plan Commission began a public hearing on a multi-level apartment building proposed for 831 Emerson St. by developers Focus Development, Inc. and CA-Ventures. About 70 people attended the hearing, many to voice their opposition.

As proposed, the west portion of the building which faces the CTA tracks would be 14 stories; the middle portion would be 12 stories; and the eastern portion, 9 stories. Portions of the property facing Emerson Street would be set back from the street and landscaped.

The proposed building would contain a total of 287 residential units, with 105 studios, 60 one-bedroom units, 63 two-bedroom units, and 59 three-bedroom units. The building is designed to attract upper classmen students, graduate students and young professionals. One unique feature is that “beds” would be leased, so that tenants could enter into a lease for a “bed” in a two- or three-bedroom unit, and would not be responsible for finding roommates or liable for rent payments on the entire unit. The building will have commercial space on the ground floor, which is expected to be occupied by the existing 7-Eleven convenience store.

The developers plan to include 145 parking spaces on site; an underground parking facility would house 103 of those spaces. In addition, the developers plan to lease 67 parking spaces at the Maple Avenue parking garage. Residents in the building will not be entitled to obtain a residential parking permit, so on-street parking would be reserved for other residents in the neighborhood.

Developers said the property taxes on the new building would be about $1 million a year, compared to $134,000 on the current buildings.

At the hearing, Damir Latinovic, zoning administrator for the City, said the developers are asking for seven “allowances.” A key one is building height. At its highest point, the building is 145.5 feet. The zoning code allows a maximum of 97 feet. Another is that the proposed building contains 287 units; the code allows up to 170. A third is that the proposal provides a total of 212 parking spaces, the code requires 423.

City staff recommends the project, subject to a reduction in building height. Staff’s memo says that new housing developments with higher density near transit stations are consistent with the City’s comprehensive plan. In addition, the memo says, “The proposed smaller-than-typical and furnished units will offer a housing option that is currently not provided in and around the downtown area.”

Staff recommended that 12 conditions be attached to the project.

Building Height

The height of the building was a sticking point for many neighbors at prior meetings, as well as for the Design and Project Review Committee (DPRC). That committee unanimously recommended approval of the project on Nov. 18, with the proviso that the height of the building be reduced, without specifying how much. 

City staff likewise recommended that the project be approved, subject to a reduction in height, without specifying by how much. A staff memo says if the height were reduced it “could be compatible with the overall character of surrounding developments that range up to seven (Sherman Gardens) and 11 (Perlman Apartments at 1900 Sherman Ave.) stories tall and up to 14 and 16-stories (E2 building) on the west side of the CTA tracks.”

When asked if there was a recommended reduction in height, Mr. Latinovic did not say how many floors the reduction should be, but said staff would like to retain the step-down heights of the buildings. He expressed concern that if the 14-story building dropped by one story, the developers may want to increase the height of another of the buildings in order to make the development financially sound. He said he hoped that would not be the case.

Community Questions

Community members did not have an opportunity to present comments at the hearing on Dec. 9, but were able to ask questions.

Several neighbors expressed concern that the development might create a precedent and permit future “sprawl” on the north side of Emerson Street. Mr. Latinovic pointed out that the zoning on either side of this development allows for buildings eight and nine stories high because the site is close to a transit stop.

Plan Commission Chair Jim Ford said the question about sprawl always exists as long as a community grows and changes. “That’s why this commission and Council consider whether to push the envelope,” he said.

Several people questioned whether the number of parking spaces, which is 0.73 parking spaces per unit, was adequate. The developers said the project was geared toward students who generally do not have cars, and that the average parking-to-unit ratio across 10 other similar developments in college communities was 0.38.

First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske raised a related question about leasing 67 parking spaces at the Maple Avenue Garage to the development. Mr. Latinovic said the garage has a total of 1,400 parking spaces, that 964 spaces are under lease arrangements, and that the average daily occupancy is 50%. Ald. Fiske said she wanted to be sure there was enough parking at the garage for the movie theatre and a proposed performing arts center. 

One of the public benefits listed by the developers was they would make a contribution to the City’s affordable housing fund. When asked, “How much?” the developers did not provide a number, but said they wanted to discuss that. 

One person questioned whether providing luxury housing for students at a transit-oriented site was the best use of the site, and suggested there was “a lot of mono-cultural” housing in the area. Many other questions were asked about vehicular and pedestrian traffic, how to keep the property on the tax rolls, the need for student housing and the management of the building.

After hearing three hours of testimony, the Plan Commission decided to continue the hearing to Jan. 13, at which time neighbors and community members will have an opportunity to present comments about the project. After the Plan Commission makes its recommendation, City Council will vote on the proposed development. Some of the allowances requested by the developers require a two-thirds vote by Council.