On Jan. 11, the City’s Plan Commission concluded the public hearing on the multi-level apartment building proposed for 831 Emerson St., and it unanimously decided to recommend that City Council approve the project, subject to 11 conditions. Approximately 30 residents attended the hearing, 16 of whom voiced opposition to the project

Revisions to the Project

In response to concerns expressed by neighbors and First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske in prior meetings, the developers, Focus Development, Inc. and CA-Ventures, reduced the height of the building which was originally three levels: 14, 12 and 9 stories. As revised, the west portion of the building which faces the CTA tracks would be 12 stories; the middle portion would be 11 stories; and the eastern portion, 9 stories.

The number of apartment units in the proposed building has also been cut back by 20 units. As revised, the building would contain a total of 267 residential units, with 62 studios, 96 one-bedroom units, 63 two-bedroom units, and 46 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.

With the reduction in units, the developers reduced the number of parking spaces, with most on site and some leased at the Maple Avenue parking garage.

As part of the revisions, the developers also agreed to pay $500,000 into the City’s affordable housing fund. Previously the amount was not specified. The developers said another major benefit is they will environmentally remediate the site, which has been used by a dry cleaner for many years. Remediation is necessary to develop the property.

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 a zoning change from C1 to C1A and for eight “allowances.” A key one is building height. At its highest point, the building is 126 feet. Assuming the site is rezoned C1A, the zoning code allows a maximum of 97 feet. Another allowance is that the proposed building contains 267 units; the code allows up to 169.  A third is that the proposal provides a total of 199 parking spaces, the code requires 423.

Neighbors’ Concerns

Several neighbors expressed concern that the development might create a precedent and permit future “sprawl” on the north side of Emerson Street. Neighbors also raised concerns about increasing density in the area, and the impact it would have on increased traffic – vehicular, bikes, and pedestrian. 

Many others were concerned that the building was designed as student housing, with units much smaller than generally available in Evanston. They asked about how the building would be managed; they expressed concerns about what would happen if students were not attracted to the building and whether it could be converted to another use or whether it would essentially become a distressed site; and they expressed concerns about whether the property would be taken off the tax rolls if Northwestern University acquired it.

The developers said they have developed similar types of housing in other university towns and are confident that there will be demand for the housing and they are committed to properly managing the building. If approved, the plan is to file a covenant which would attempt to keep the property on the tax rolls or to require a payment in lieu of taxes if the property is sold.

Numerous other concerns were raised, including the adequacy of parking, which developers said was more than adequate based on their history with other student housing projects. 

Plan Commission Comments

Colby Lewis, a member of the Plan Commission, noted neighbors’ concerns about future sprawl, and questioned where is “high density going to be limited?”

Commission member Terri Dubin said she did not think the dividing line should be the middle of Emerson Street. She said she viewed Emerson as a “corridor,” adding, “I’m not as troubled by the higher density across the street because it’s got its back to a lower FAR [floor area ratio] of single family and multi-family that is there now.”

Chairman Jim Ford said, in light of the developments already on the north side of Emerson Street, “it seems to me you’ve given up the idea of the centerline of Emerson being a hard line between downtown density and northeast Evanston density. I think Commissioner Dubin’s observation here is a useful one about the existing density north of Emerson. What we have here is a corridor of slightly higher density and the real dividing line is on the north property line of those projects, not the south property line.”

Commission member Andy Pigozzi said this is a difficult site to develop. “It’s limited in my view in what would be attractive to any developer.” While noting the neighbors raised “legitimate concerns,” he said, “I don’t think it’s particularly out of character with the site, even prior to E-2 [the new development on the south side of Emerson]. There’s a lot of other structures of compatible height.”

City staff recommended that the Plan Commission recommend the project, subject to 11 conditions. Having received the Plan Commission’s recommendation, the project next moves to City Council.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...