City Council voted on July 11, to authorize the City Manager to negotiate the potential sale of the parking lot east of the library and directly behind the Woman’s Club building for possible development. The vote, said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, amounted to “more or less putting a ‘for sale’ sign in front of the lot.
“Over the past several years, this property has been identified by multiple parties as a potential redevelopment site for mixed use office/residential, performing arts, housing, and hotels,” wrote Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons and Paul Zalmezak of the Economic Development Department in the staff memo accompanying the proposed ordinance. “In recent months, interest in office development for the site has increased as Evanston’s office vacancy rate declines and demand for Class A office space increasing,” the memo continued.
“We have had four legitimate developers come forward in the last 30 days,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. Without an ordinance permitting negotiation, he said, the City has not been able to field actual offers or discuss even the most basic of terms such as whether the new development would place the property back on the property tax rolls.
The City has not decided yet whether or not to sell the property stressed Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “We don’t even have the proposals yet,” he said. “Effectively, people have expressed interest in acquiring the property,” and approval of the ordinance allows the City to “have these conversations” and receive actual proposals.
Under Section 2 of the ordinance, “the City Manager is directed to set the sale price of the Subject Property at Five Million Dollars ($5,000,000).”
Council also voted to suspend the rules requiring two readings of an ordinance, so that the ordinance takes effect immediately. “The reason the suspension of the rules was requested was to get proposals even faster,” said Ald. Wilson. “I’m interested in seeing what the proposals are. … The City reserves the right to reject any proposal,” and any developer accepted will still have to go through the full approval process, including public meeting and public input, before a sale would be accepted, he said.
Several residents rose to speak against the proposal – particularly the decision to suspend the rules – including representatives from neighboring Frances Willard House and Women’s Club of Evanston. Chava Wu of the Women’s Club said the potential impact on the actual physical structure of the Women’s Club Building was just one of five identified concerns. She called for an environmental impact statement and traffic study and said the Women’s Club must be involved in any planning.
“I don’t blame anyone who expressed some concern” about the ordinance, said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, because the wording of the ordinance appears to signal an immediate sale. “The language in [the new ordinance] just has to be used,” she said, but “this is just the very beginning of the process. … We really don’t know what we’re going to get here.”
Ald. Fiske said that all along, since her election, she has talked to property owners near the library lot about possible development. “I have talked to you over the years [and said] development might occur at the site. The process will be open. We will discuss [any proposed project] at multiple ward meetings.” First, though, she said, “it is important to go ahead and see” what proposals might be out there and “get the conversation started.”
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said that any proposal received must address the replacement of the 74 downtown public parking spaces, and charging stations, that would be lost.
City code permits two methods of selling City-owned property, said Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward. A “sale may be by bid… or by negotiated purchase” per Section 1-17-4-2 of the City Code of Evanston. Mr. Bobkiewicz said the City preferred the negotiation method, allowing for a quicker process and more immediate proposals. Using the bid process would require months longer in preparing a request for proposal followed by request for bids.
“I just want to make sure that if we go down this path, we should have bids,” said Ald. Miller, and not just a single developer already in mind. The City should get as many legitimate bids as possible.
“That is certainly our intent,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz.
Ald. Fiske struck a final note of caution. “This is a particularly attractive site, but it is between two landmarked properties [the Women’s Club and Frances Willard house],” she said.
Council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance and suspend the rules. The ‘For Sale’ sign is out – the bidding begins at $5 million.