Chicago-based Albion Residential is proposing to construct a 16-story building, containing 287 residential units and 9,616 square feet of retail space just south of downtown at 1450-1508 Sherman Ave. The ambitious but controversial project was conditionally approved by the City’s Design and Project Review Committee on Aug. 3 and was scheduled to be reviewed by the City’s Plan Commission on Aug. 9, after this paper went to press. A group of residents told the RoundTable about some objections they had to the project. 

In April, Albion’s John Prescott told Curbed Chicago website that the units “will appeal primarily to singles and couples who want to live close to transit to give them access to Chicago without driving into the city. They also want retail, restaurants and entertainment that Evanston offers within walking distance.”

One local resident objecting to the project, Keira Kelly, told the RoundTable that Albion’s project could potentially “transform one of the few human-scale blocks in downtown Evanston that is now home to independent restaurants and storefronts. … Many people feel the Albion project is a tipping point of an accumulation of developer-driven high rises of luxury micro units that are transforming the face of historic downtown Evanston, without public buy-in.”

Ms. Kelly said she was part of “an organically-formed group [that] is made up of concerned citizens who were taken aback by the size and scale of the Albion Residential project.”

Albion is seeking a number of zoning allowances for the project, according to City records. The company wants to offer 287 units in the complex, but only 105 units are allowed by code; and it has proposed a building height of 192 feet where 105 feet are allowed. The proposed complex would have 185 parking spaces, where code would require 389 spaces for a 287-unit building. The building would be 16 stories and contain 9,616 sq. feet of commercial space.

Objectors to the project say they do not see how the benefits of the project would outweigh the concessions the City would have to make for it to be completed as currently envisioned. In a letter from Evanston architect Greg Williams to Community Development Director Johanna Leonard forwarded by Ms. Kelly, Mr. Williams said, “The gross excesses beyond the zoning parameters foment this citizen consternation, ‘Why do we even have zoning guidelines if they are not followed?’”

Records also show that among the several benefits the developers are promising in exchange for zoning relief are a $50,000 contribution to the City for capital improvement for landscaping and park revitalization; a maintenance program for Harper Park, which is across the street from the site; a publicly accessible pocket park on the site’s southern end; a $50,000 contribution for public art and a lighting program; a CTA/Metra viaduct reconstruction; and a $60,000 contribution towards a Divvy Bike Share Station. The developers also promise two on-site affordable studio apartments to be rented to individuals at 60% of the Area Median Income and to meet Inclusionary Housing Ordinance requirements with a fee-in-lieu payment of $2.9 million.

Ms. Kelly said numerous studies have discredited a widely-accepted notion that such a development would lead to lower taxes, and added that the scale of the project is inconsistent with Evanston’s 2009 Development Plan.

That inconsistency is indeed noted in the Albion memo delivered to City officials, which says, “This site is designated as South Traditional subarea which calls for mixed-use development with heights between 3 to 5 stories to keep a walkable commercial stretch for this section of the Downtown. The overall height of the proposed development is well above this suggested height, [but] it does provide a building mass consisting of a three-story masonry base to more closely match adjacent buildings and the residential portion is [set back] for a significant amount of the development site, lessening the effects of the height at the Sherman Avenue property line. The Downtown Plan also highlighted the need to maintain a compact, walkable mixed-use transit oriented character while promoting sustainable development that can be an economic engine, which staff believes the proposed development will provide.”

“The City now says [the Development Plan] is a ‘guiding document,’” said Ms. Kelly. “So we ask that at minimum, the City agree with the intention of this block as a true transitional one and not grant extra zoning variances.”

She also said that the units would be prohibitively expensive, adding, “We have to think about if the City’s focus on developing for a high-end demographic may run counter to our goal of remaining a diverse community. [Furthermore] payment into the affordable housing fund doesn’t go far. The City recently bought two units of housing at nearly $300,000 each. So, what seems like a lot of money might only translate into 10 units. Also, increasing ‘luxury’ rentals may be raising the overall rental market, as we have seen in so many neighborhoods in Chicago. Is it smart to cheer on such development before we know what the result might be?”

Ms. Kelly and her allies in the community had been asking for the City to issue a continuance for the Aug. 9 meeting. She added that the City should reject the project as a “planned development” because it would not have a high threshold of public benefits, standards and general conditions.

“Albion, and other high rises before it, do not really seem to be adding meaningful public benefits to make this trade of zoning allowances,” said Ms. Kelly, who also called on the City not to issue the allowances. “It would be better for Albion to re-design this building to be five stories, [which is] considered human scale and still allows sun to shine on the street [and] to be varied in heights and facades.” 

The project’s detractors are also asking for a wind and solar study, as well as an occupancy-rate study.

“A north-south building with long east and west faces suffers the worst possible solar orientation,” said Mr. Williams in his letter. “These long flat glass and silver-panel walls will be essentially huge mirrors in the full-on low-angle morning and afternoon sunlight, absorbing great heat and reflecting light as a blinding nuisance to neighbors. This building orientation is a particular LEED deficit.”

Ms. Kelly said, “We believe this block has a great opportunity to be re-imagined and even developed in a ‘human scale’ way, which is still three to five stories, like in Bethesda Row, Maryland, with a pleasing and vibrant block of varied architecture, pleasing and sunny outdoor cafes and independent businesses with character. This block of Sherman Avenue can be a natural extension of the new Fountain Square and can be developed to be an appealing and vibrant place that will attract people to shop, linger and enjoy Evanston.”

Full details of the project can be viewed atcourbanizw.com/projects/1450-sherman/information.