Members of the Evanston Plan Commission, on Aug. 9, heard testimony from developers and community members about a proposed 16-story, 287-unit apartment complex just to the south of downtown.
The Commission did not reach a decision on the project, however, and it will hear further testimony at its Sept. 13 meeting, at which time the Commission may decide to recommend that City Council approve or disapprove the project. To approve the project at the Council level would require a two-thirds vote.
The project, at 1450-1508 Sherman Ave., would be would be located where Tommy Nevin’s Pub and the Prairie Moon restaurant now stand. Many local residents object to the scope of the project and maintain it is not in keeping with the City’s 2009 development plan, among other factors.
Indeed, the project’s development company, Albion Residential, has asked for five allowances from the City, for the project’s height, number of units, number of parking spaces, floor-to-area ratio and ziggurat-shaped setback
Albion has made numerous changes to the project on the basis of recommendations and requirements from City Staff and community feedback, among them a reduction in the unit count from 298 to 287, an increase in the number of parking spaces and moving the building’s driveway.
Donna Pugh, whose firm Foley & Lardner LLP represents Albion, said at the Aug. 9 meeting, “We’ve turned this upside-down many, many times.”
But a number of residents expressed concerns about the complex in questions and comments, among them Kiera Kelly, who has been a key organizer of Albion’s opponents. She asked that the City require a wind study for the location.
Chris Nicholas, who lives on Maple Avenue, said that “there were a lot of things” to like about the proposal. “But the thing is, Evanston has a zoning code, and in 2009, after a ton of community involvement, there were things such as the FAR [Floor Area Ratio] that were put into effect. … Overall, what value is the City going to see for approving a building that is grossly out of compliance with code?”
Several days after the meeting, on Aug. 18, opponents mounted a petition on change.org calling for the cancellation of the project.
The petition said that the development “fails to provide sufficient onsite affordable housing, instead catering to the already oversaturated high-end luxury rental market. The building – which is unlikely to provide sufficient tax-revenue –may further exacerbate Evanston’s affordability crisis, undermine Evanston’s fair housing opportunities, create severe wind tunnels, and cause serious congestion. Despite these concerns, neither the City nor the developer have conducted a single study on the building’s impact.”
Ms. Kelly said in an email to the RoundTable that the project signifies “a tipping point” in a glut of luxury development that she maintains residents do not support.
“The ‘micro’ units… would be prohibitively expensive,” said Ms. Kelly. “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 and keeping Evanston affordable.”
The objections voiced by Ms. Kelly and others were presented in the Aug. 9 issue of the RoundTable. As such, James Prescott, who has been a spokesman for the project, and Andrew Yule, Albion’s vice-president of development, subsequently asked to discuss what they maintained were misconceptions about the complex.
Mr. Yule said, the zoning code allows for a building to be 145 feet high at the site. Excluding from the calculation floors which are devoted to parking, which is permitted under the code, the proposed building height is 167 feet, or 22 feet more than permitted by code.
Mr. Yule explained the standard building height for the site is 105 feet. He said, though, that the project would have a “developer’s bonus” of 40 feet because the proposal met a number of criteria, including proximity to transit and providing a bicycle room. He and Mr. Prescott both emphasized that community zoning parameters should not be considered inflexible.
Additionally Mr. Yule said, “The density of the building itself is not far off from what is allowed by the code. As a developer, we weigh the FAR number. This particular site allows a 6.0 FAR. We currently are proposing a 6.9 FAR, which is not very far off.”
Mr. Yule noted that current zoning requirements are geared towards condominium development, and he could not get such a condo development in that location financed, or its units sold, today.
“The misconception of zoning is, ‘Follow the rules, that’s what the law states.’ … There are variances to exceeding [guidelines] and that’s why the planning commission exists,” Mr. Yule added.
Mr. Yule said that the millennial demographic Albion hopes to attract can bring a vibrancy to the neighborhood.
“It brings this atmosphere of, ‘Everything doesn’t close at 8 or 9 p.m.,’ he explained. “Maybe [businesses] can stay open later, which means restaurants and bars get another turn of business. Maybe more people start walking. It’s more lively and attracts future prospects who want to live here.”
Mr. Yule emphasized that, given a relative lack of proximity to the Northwestern campus, the development is not gearing marketing towards students, adding, “Right now, if you want to live [in an apartment] in Evanston, and you’re not a student, you are kind of secluded. … We’re seeing this as filling a void for that ‘in-between’ group.”
Albion predicts that the complex would eventually bring in more than $900,000 in annual property tax revenue. “It doesn’t mean that your property tax bill is going to go down,” Mr. Yule said. “It means that the [tax] base is being satisfied – there’s improvements, streets and sanitation, public schools, the library, all the great things in Evanston that somebody has to help pay for.”
Albion has promised to pay for a number of things which it says are benefits of the project. Among them 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 $50,000 contribution for public art and a light program; CTA/Metra viaduct restoration; and a $60,000 contribution towards a Divvy Bike Share Station. Albion’s building would also have two affordable studio apartments at 60 percent Area Median Income, and the developers will meet the City’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance Requirements with a fee-in-lieu payment of $2.9 million to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund.
An audience member at the Aug. 9 meeting asked who would be holding Albion accountable to the myriad promises the firm is making in conjunction with the project. Scott Mangum, a zoning and planning administrator for the City, said that at the time the project received final approval, an ordinance enforcing Albion’s conditions would be drafted.
Mr. Yule acknowledged the concerns rising as the community and the City consider Albion’s proposal.
“It’s a public process,” he said. “I understand that. It’s something I feel that, as neighbors, helps us to come together.”
Mr. Prescott added that the current owners of the property approached Albion. “Tommy Nevin’s basically said, ‘We’re done—we’re for sale and the land is worth more than the business.’ … The assemblage is underutilized. You can say, the community approached the developer in this case.”
Mr. Yule said, “We know that we’re asking for something that’s a little bit outside of zoning today, but we feel that this project will help increase the chance of success for all the businesses that are downtown. …They’re really the ones that are trying to bring the energy to downtown today, and they’re the ones telling us, ‘Thank you for coming here.’”
City staff has recommended that the Plan Commission recommend that the project be approved, subject to seven conditions.