1815 Ridge Ave.                         Rendering courtesy of the City of Evanston

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By a 6-1 vote on July 25, City Council approved a planned development at 1815 Ridge Ave., former home of the National School Towel Service building.

The project required a change in the land’s zoning from commercial to Downtown Transition and Special Use in order to accommodate the planned 10-story, 163-unit residential building offering senior housing for 102 independent and assisted living dwelling units, another 31 assisted living units for residents with cognitive impairments, and 30 memory care units.

The project site includes not only the former National School Towel site, but also City-owned property between the railroad tracks and Ridge Avenue near the Green Bay-Emerson intersection that will be sold to the developer and combined into a 0.77 acre plot of land.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, was the lone no vote. “I have been concerned about this development for some time. … It is too large” for the site, “shoe-horned” into the space, and “too tall,” she said. “But more than that we need to think about the quality of life of the residents “who will live in the new development,” she said, adding there is not enough natural green space in the vicinity of the building.

Property owners across the street in the 1800 Ridge condominium building urged a no vote, calling the building inappropriate for the site and labeling the proposed service provided “sheltered care” rather than assisted living. Sheltered care would not be permitted under the zoning passed, even after the shift to a Downtown Transition district.

The project began as a proposed 11-story building with a different mix of assisted-living and independent-living units, but after neighbor input the developer shrank the height and increased the number of assisted-living units, while dropping the number of independent-living units to arrive at just two fewer units than originally planned. Assisted-living units can be smaller than independent living units because they do not have kitchens.

The building will complete the redevelopment of a stretch of the east side of Ridge Avenue between Church and Emerson streets along the Metra tracks. The Focus apartment development, phase two, completed construction just a few years ago. The National Towel site has been sitting vacant for years.

Affordability, and affordable housing in general, concerned several members of the Council. Under the special use ordinance necessary for the project, the developer will contribute $400,000 to the City’s affordable housing fund and must provide two on-site units for residents at or below 80% of area median income. Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, asked if the affordable units would remain affordable after the first resident moved out.

Under the ordinance, said corporation council Grant Farrar, the project must always provide at least two affordable units. If one resident moves out, another resident whose income is 80% or less of the area median income must move into the vacated unit.

“I think we’re missing the point here,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. She asked whether a resident of an affordable independent living unit who later requires an assisted living or memory care unit may remain in the development. “Could we make that assurance tonight?” she asked the developer.

The short answer was no. Developer Michael McClean said “This is not an apartment building.” More than just a dwelling unit is provided, he said, including one meal a day and cleaning services. Affordable units are provided at a discount, but increasing that discount to include the far greater services required by an assisted-living unit – three meals a day plus additional care – would be at far greater financial loss. Affordable units will always be independent living.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward includes the development, asked then about what the management company, Ridgeline Management, will do to assist senior residents in finding ways to pay for increasing levels of care.

“That’s a very common question,” said Keeley Rath of Ridgeline Management, and the answer was that it “just depends on the individual.” Ridgeline, she said, follows residents all the way through hospice and the end of life, and fully discloses the financial burdens to all residents every step along the way.

In the end, there was little other opposition from the dais, and little appetite to halt a deal that would develop a parcel long empty so close to downtown. With Aldermen Eleanor Revelle, 7thWard, and Brian Miller, 9th Ward absent, the vote was 6-1 with only Ald. Fiske voting “no.”