Swirling in controversy on several different levels, a proposed multi-level, 260-unit apartment building at 831 Emerson failed to get to a vote on Feb. 8, when two members of the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee voted to hold the matter in committee. The stated reason for the hold, said Alderman Judy Fiske, whose First Ward includes the site, was that the developer asked for a meeting with neighbors.

While the building will contain 260 units, it will contain 440 bedrooms, and it is being designed to attract upper classmen students and graduate students. A unique feature of the building is that “bedrooms” may be leased, so tenants would not be responsible for finding roommates for the two- or three-bedroom units or liable for rent payments for the entire unit. Some neighboring property owners have referred to the project as a “private dorm.”

Focus Development representatives sitting in Council chambers appeared confused by the request to hold, and Ald. Fiske later admitted Focus did not ask that the matter be held. Initially, the “hold” request confused the Planning and Development Committee, which could not decide whether to allow the public to speak about a matter that was held for the next meeting. The public ultimately had the opportunity to speak.

The project stirred controversy on three levels. First, the concept of a “private dorm” with 440 bedrooms and only 145 on-site parking spaces and small units, some of which are about 330 square feet, led to protests from 9 of 10 citizen speakers. The project would require numerous zoning variances and under City ordinance a two-thirds majority vote at Council level.

City staff recommended the project, but with changes including the doubling of the developer’s contribution to the City’s affordable housing fund. The project unveiled a flaw in the new Affordable Housing Ordinance, said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. Affordable housing mandates are tied to the number of units in a development, said Director of Community Development Mark Muenzer. To match the required 10%, a 440-unit development (assuming each bedroom is a unit) that did not set aside 10% of its units as affordable would pay fines based on 44 units, regardless of the size of those units. The fine would have been about $2.5 million, said Mr. Muenzer, absent other types of concessions.

The project is not subject to the new Affordable Housing Ordinance, however, because it was in the planning phase when the ordinance passed. Staff suggested a $1 million contribution rather than the $500,000 proposed by the developers and recommended by the Plan Commission.

Ald. Rainey pointed out the problem – luxury 1,800-square-foot units contribute the same amount to the affordable housing fund as do 330-square-foot efficiency units. She referred the issue to staff for proposed tweaks to the Affordable Housing Ordinance.

The rumored tax-increment financing (TIF) district stretching from Clark Street to Noyes Street, a TIF that Ald. Rainey stressed has not been proposed and is not before Council, also stirred comment and question. The 831 Emerson project would be within the TIF district, said at least two of the speakers. “Either this is valuable property within downtown Evanston, or it’s a TIF area,” said Lisa Pildes.

In order to qualify as a TIF district, an area must be “blighted” or “near blighted” such that the incentives available under TIF rules can attract development. The City has been known to draw TIF districts so as to carve out any new developments and leave behind buildings that can be called “near blighted” in order to conform to TIF statutes: They did so with the recent Main/Chicago TIF.

It is not clear what the boundaries of any proposed Clark-to-Noyes TIF district will be, if one is in fact in the works.

The issue returns Feb. 22, at which point Focus may have met with neighbors and residents may have learned whether a TIF is actually in the works or not.