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City Council soundly rejected a proposal to build a 260-unit apartment building at 831 Emerson on Feb. 22. The vote was 7-2 against, with only Aldermen Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, voting in favor.
The project, proposed by developer CA Ventures, would have replaced the existing dry cleaning building and 7-Eleven shop with a staggered 12-, 11- and 9-story complex consisting of 260 studio, 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units. All would have been fully furnished, and leases would have been by the bedroom and not by the unit. Units would average only about 725 square feet, leading some to call the project “microhousing.”
While the building is designed to attract upper class and graduate students, the developer said the tenant pool would also include young professionals. The location, close to public transportation, allowed the developer to request only 193 parking spaces, 145 on site, for 440 total bedrooms.
Reasons for Council’s decision were myriad and across the board. “My problem with this building is that it’s just the wrong building for that site,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, whose 1st ward includes 831 Emerson. She also said the City needed better planning for the area north of Emerson, as traditionally the City’s downtown stopped on the south side of the street.
“If we’re going to push downtown north of Emerson, we need a plan,” she said.
The concept of an apartment building primarily occupied by Northwestern students, but not monitored by the school or under its control, bothered some as well. “Tenants will come to this [complex] as part of the college experience,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “I lived in a private housing [dorm]” while in college, he added, “and I didn’t move there because it was quiet and I could study.” He later said he looked up reviews of other CA Ventures projects and found complaints in line with those anticipated by project critics: noise and parking problems.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the density of the project concerned her the most. “The change from C1 zoning to C1A is very significant,” she said. C1A zoning “is one of the densest” zoning categories in the City, “and the developer has increased that significantly” with requested variances, she said. The requested project asked for density “so beyond what we have agreed are our limits that it breaks the social compact,” she added.
Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, said planning for downtown north of Emerson was critical. He referred the matter to the Planning and Development Committee for consideration, but said that because of lack of planning he would not support the current project.
A rumored proposed TIF for the area that includes the project site also muddied the waters, though the proposal was pulled from Council consideration before it even made it to a meeting. Concerns among both the public and members of Council over how an area could be considered blighted or near blighted when a new project has been proposed may have influenced some votes.
Only Ald. Tendam joined Ald. Rainey in supporting the project. “I do like this project,” he said, calling microhousing “another piece of a broad spectrum of housing across Evanston.”
Ald. Rainey challenged her fellow Administration and Public Works committee members to explain why they were willing to so completely reject a unanimous recommendation from the Plan Commission. But she admitted later herself that at times she disagrees with the Plan Commission.
“The Plan Commission, in my view, made a terrible mistake” in approving 831 Emerson, said Ald. Wynne. “I have disagreed with them many times, and that’s my prerogative.”
She was joined by six other aldermen in that prerogative.