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City Council on June 12 approved a 9-story, 242-unit development at 831 Emerson St., ending the years-long struggle to find a project that works at the location currently occupied by a 7-Eleven convenience store, the former Lake City Cleaners, and Lake City’s current boxing studio co-tenant.
Aldermen Judy Fiske, whose First Ward includes the site, and Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, voted against the project.
Just six weeks earlier, two other aldermen – Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, and Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward – also voted against the project. Both cited an important change to the plans – adding a 3.5 foot setback on the Emerson Street side of the project – as one of the reasons for their changed vote.
“I, like Ald. Revelle, have really struggled with this project,” said Ald. Wynne. “I did vote against the first iteration. … I don’t think C1a is a good zoning district.” She said she understood C1a was the only option available allowing the 7-Eleven store to remain. The sidewalk troubled her earlier, but the added 3.5 feet made a difference, she said.
“I appreciate the added 3.5 feet,” said Ald. Revelle. She also said she was “mindful of the need for revenue, and mindful of the need for” public schools as well as the $2.4 million the project will contribute to the City’s affordable housing fund, as required by the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance (IHO).
The project serves as one of the most significant tests of the December 2015 Inclusionary Housing Ordinance. The IHO requires developers to set aside 10% of the units of any new construction, rental or condominium, as “affordable” as defined by Area Median Income. In lieu of providing affordable units, developers can instead opt to make a contribution to the City’s affordable housing fund.
The first test came back in October, but in that case the 812-814 Noyes St. developer agreed to provide the required four affordable units.
At 831 Emerson, the developer opted instead to pay the in-lieu fee. Given the development’s size and proximity to public transportation, the affordable housing contribution adds up to $2.4 million.
“I know” the contribution is required by ordinance, said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, “but that does not take away from the fact it is a public benefit.” She also praised the developer for responding to the community’s suggested changes, including the increased setback.
“We have never had $2.4 million in an affordable housing fund,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. “This is real cash money. We’ll be able to provide real affordable housing. … I was going to say it, but I’m not going to say it. If you vote against this you are voting against affordable housing.” She then reiterated she was not saying it.
Ald. Rainey also pointed out the valuable precedent set. “If we vote for this project, we’re going to get $2.4 million. The next project in line, that project is going to bring in $3 million. That’s going to be [over] $5 million, and we’ll have this project to thank for it.”
“When we passed the inclusionary housing ordinance, this is what we asked for,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “The longer I do this, the more aversion I have to plans,” he added a bit later. The City’s plans and ordinances call for a certain number of units for a project to be economically feasible. Requiring a larger setback would “push it taller” to make the project work, he said.
Residents from Sherman Gardens, the co-op development across the street on the south side of Emerson, were divided. Some spoke in favor, some against. Those in favor praised the improvements over the February 2016 proposal, a 260-unit, fully furnished “rent by the bedroom” private dormitory type of development. Those opposed criticized the size, scope, and the expected student resident mix.
Of the developments’ 242 units, 71 will be studios, and there will be 40 one-bedroom, 93 two-bedroom and 38 three-bedroom units. There will be nearly as much bicycle parking as car parking – 162 spaces in a bike room with 18 more on the street, and 174 car spaces with a few of them reserved for 7-Eleven customers.
Now that the City expects to have money in its affordable housing fund, attention should turn toward developing a coherent plan to leverage those funds into actual affordable homes for Evanston residents.