Rendering of proposed development of 831 Emerson St. looking west on Emerson from City Of Evanston packet

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On April 17, City Council voted, 5-3, to introduce a proposed ordinance that, if adopted, would allow the developers, Focus Construction and CA Ventures, to construct a nine-story, 242-unit apartment building at 831 Emerson St. The building would be U-shaped, with the legs of the U facing Emerson. There would be 174 parking spaces on site.

This is the developers’ second attempt to develop the site. A little more than a year ago, on Feb. 22, 2016, City Council voted, 7-2, to reject their proposal to construct a staggered 12-, 11-, and 9-story building complex with 260 rental units on the site. That project was targeted towards graduate students, with rentals of two-and three-bedroom units to be by the bedroom, so students would not be liable for their roommate’s share of the rent. Many neighbors opposed the project, saying it would amount to unsupervised student housing.

Concerns were also raised that allowing a 12-story building north of Emerson Street would have a domino effect and spawn more intense development north of Emerson Street.

On April 17, Vicki Lee of Focus said at a P&D Committee meeting held immediately prior to the City Council’s meeting that the new project differed from the prior one in that its height was reduced, the number of units were reduced, that units would be leased on a “traditional” basis, and there would be a higher percentage of two- and three-bedroom units than in the prior project.

Ms. Lee said there would be 71 studios, 40 one-bedroom units, 93 two-bedroom units, and 38 three-bedroom units.

When asked about the size and rental amount of the units, she said one-bedroom units would be 525 square feet and rent at $1,850 per month; the three-bedroom units would be 1,153 square feet and rent at $3,500 per month.

Tim Anderson, Chief Executive Officer of Focus said the smaller size of the units was similar to that of other developments in the country that were near to transit stations.

The site which has been used for many years by a dry cleaning store, requires environmental remediation. Perlman Apartments, an 11-story senior residential building owned by Cook County Housing Authority, is to the east. The CTA tracks are to the west. 

To move forward with the project, the developers need Council to approve 10 site development allowances, including for building height, the number of units, and parking. They also need zoning changes, which require a two-thirds vote by City Council.

The developers have agreed to many conditions that would be imposed if the development were approved, including they would pay $2.4 million to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund, in lieu of providing 24 required affordable units onsite; and they would eliminate any environmental contamination on the site (at a cost of least $500,000).

City Council Discussion

At the P&D Committee meeting, two residents gave reluctant support to the project; two opposed it; and Ald. Judy Fiske (1st Ward) and Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward voiced their opposition.

One resident said she recognized something will be built on the site, and, “The latest proposal is 1,000% better than the first proposal. … So I say, ‘Let’s get on with it.’ I’m not going to be happy with it. But I don’t know we can do any better.”

Another resident opposed the project saying, “The proposal is too big for this site.” He added that the south walls of the building are only eight feet from the curb, compared to setbacks of 25 feet and 72 of neighboring buildings.

Ald. Wynn said she thought the proposed building is “extremely dense.” She added that the building rises 103 feet straight up from the sidewalk – which Mr. Anderson said is 11 feet, 6 inches wide, and abuts the street. It creates a “cliff wall,” Ald. Wynn said.

“I think the congestion you’re creating here is terrible,” said Ald. Wynne. “This is a bad design.”

Ald. Fiske likewise expressed concerns that the building was not sufficiently set back from the street, and said, “This building is just too close. I agree with Ald. Wynne the building is too dense.”

Referring to the $2.4 million contribution to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund, Ald. Fiske asked what the developers could do differently if they had an extra $2.4 million to work with.

Mr. Anderson said they could reduce the number of units and push the building back, but he could not say by how much. He said that by reducing the height of the building from that proposed last year, it was necessary to extend the building to the sidewalk.

Other representatives of Focus added that the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance did not allow any leeway with respect to the $2.4 million contribution.

Ald. Fiske said she would love to see the building “pushed back.” She added that this proposed building “is so much improved” over the one rejected last year.

Alds. Fiske, Wynne, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, voted no on the motion to introduce the ordinance. If they maintain their position, the remaining six alderman will need to vote “yes” for the project to be approved.

The project received the unanimous support of the City’s Plan Commission, and is recommended by City staff.

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...