In a joint meeting of the City’s Plan Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals, both bodies voted to recommend against the proposed restaurant planned for 1829 Simpson St. on the edge of Twiggs Park. The typical concerns carried the day as residents and committee members warned of rodents and other pests attracted by discarded foods, trash in the park, traffic congestion, and parking struggles.
The building, last used as a snackery and previously a beauty salon, grocery store, and perhaps briefly a restaurant according to residents who addressed the committees, was rezoned from commercial to residential about 20 years ago. The site has never been used for a residence since the current building went up at least 50 years ago.
The restaurant use has the support of the majority of the community, said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, whose 5th Ward includes the site and Twiggs Park. But it would require a change in zoning back to the original business use as well as a special use and major variance for side yard setbacks. The building sits on both property lines – the lot is only 27 feet wide.
Ald. Rue Simmons was unable to attend the meeting because she was at the hospital attending the birth of her first grandson. “I’m disappointed that I was not there,” she told the RoundTable. “I would have been there as a strong advocate for the business.” During the campaign and since the election she has championed economic development in the Fifth Ward.
Without Ald. Rue Simmons, only the applicant, Arkady Kats and his wife, the property owner, Rita Kats, spoke in favor of the project. On the other side, a veritable who’s who of former elected officials and local activists spoke against the proposal, including former Mayor Lorraine Morton, former Clerk Rodney Greene, former Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward candidate Carliss Sutton, and activists Madelyn Ducre, Betty Sue Ester, and Priscilla Giles.
Mary McAuley of the ZBA launched the first line of attack, saying, “One of the greatest concerns to neighbors and businesses in the area… [is] wildlife, pests, skunks, and other critters.” Twiggs Park, located along the sanitary canal, is home to numerous species of wildlife, raising fears that restaurant refuse would attract more creatures to the area.
The lack of an alley also posed problems for both residents and the committee – garbage would have to be collected from in front of the building, on the parkway on Simpson Street. Ms. McAuley said residents should not have to look at dumpsters on the street.
Mr. Kats said the problem could be handled through a contract for service with the commercial garbage collector, Groot. “I mean, it’s easily resolved. You have a contract with them. Easy. Easy to arrange. I don’t see this as an issue,” he said.
Nevertheless, the garbage issue kept returning over and over again. Because of the narrow lot, garbage containers would have to be wheeled through the restaurant’s front door. “If you carry garbage through the restaurant, you are guaranteed to fail,” said Elizabeth Brasher.
Former Clerk Rodney Greene led off the complaints levied by residents, ticking off the problems one by one. “The majority of the residents were not contacted,” he said.
Melissa Klotz, the City’s zoning administrator, said, though, the City notified everyone in the area by mail. Such notice is required by Evanston ordinance.
Mr. Greene also complained of increased traffic and a lack of parking. He then turned to creatures of the night, “I’ve seen raccoons, skunks, possums without any food out there.” A restaurant would increase their numbers, he implied. “The property is not the best fit for this area. It would not benefit the community, it would be a deterrent,” he concluded.
Ms. Ester said the property should be used for affordable housing. “We tried to buy the lot to do affordable housing,” she said, but somehow, in a private real estate transaction, the former property owner sold it to Ms. Kats without the knowledge of local activists or the City.
She then turned to the notice issue. “To her credit [Ald. Rue Simmons] talked to some of the people. Not to her credit, she did not talk to all of the people,” Ms. Ester said.
Ald. Rue Simmons told the RoundTable she held a public Ward meeting attended by more than 40 people, only one of whom spoke against the project, and that resident objected because the business would not be black-owned. The project was also actively posted and discussed on social media, with roughly 80 residents commenting in favor.
Ms. Ducre also criticized the project. “It would have been more beneficial to Mr. Kats and the people of the 5th Ward if [Ald. Rue Simmons] had presented it in a different way,” she said, blaming the City for a failure to communicate to residents about property transaction in the area. “The Muslim building,” she said, referring to the mosque at the corner of Simpson and Bridge. “We wanted to see affordable housing there,” she said. She returned to the Muslim building several times until the Plan Commission Chair Tom Ford interrupted her.
“The Muslim building is not on our agenda,” said Mr. Ford.
Undeterred, Ms. Ducre continued. “We don’t want things coming into our neighborhood…The Muslim building was part of the community, and we lost it because of miscommunication on the part of the City,” she said. “I like diversity, but I like fair diversity. All I ask is for fairness.”
Resident Daphne Watson continued in the same vein, saying she was “disappointed and offended” by the proposed zoning change. “All of this stuff, this glitz, we don’t need that. The bottom line is, if you are coming into the community, serve the community … Cultivate one another.” She suggested a library annex for the property. “When this business fails like their other businesses have failed, what then? … We don’t need another place to draw people into our community and spend their money and leave.”
Former Alderman Delores Holmes addressed the proposed zoning change only. “I don’t like this new system of bundling [zoning and special use] this together,” she said.
She said she was “shocked to learn the property sold for only $70,000 back in October. “Twice I went to the City and asked them to purchase it,” she said, though she did not indicate the proposed purpose. She said the “residents were very strong about keeping the business district between Darrow and Green Bay,” and warned of “52 other [uses] that could go into that space” if the zoning reverted back to its original B-1 classification as proposed. “Changing the zoning would have a real bad effect on our neighborhood. You should think really hard about making a zoning change in that neighborhood.”
“This is a City of trees. There are five huge trees” on the Cook County property, said former Mayor Lorraine Morton. (There are no trees at all on the applicant’s property.) “My heart is in that location…” The lot next door “used to belong to Lorraine Morton…” she said. She sold it to the Housing Authority of Cook County, and HACC built three units of public housing there. “Cook County did a very good job building that facility.” She said she spoke with a resident there who was opposed to the restaurant.
Mr. Sutton said the plan to build a fence around a patio in the rear of the restaurant “will block open space.”
Ms. Giles said, “We don’t want to lose another historic site for the 5th Ward.” She added, “Rats were a major problem. They still are,” before concluding the proposed project “would just not fit in the neighborhood….”
The Plan Commission then took up the proposed shift back to commercial. “It almost looks like spot zoning to me,’ said Chair Ford. Several commissioners said the zoning change would break the continuity in the neighborhood, despite the fact the property was only occupied as a commercial space and has sat vacant since being zoned residential
Commissioner Colby Lewis wondered what could happen at the location. “This is a property of limited size. Is there anything that can be done with this as currently zoned?” he asked.
“As it stands, the structure is unusable,” said Commissioner Peter Isaac.
Ms. Klotz said a single family home could go on the lot but would require variances. She agreed the building currently there could not be used as a residence. A motion to recommend that City Council deny the zoning change passed 5-0.
At ZBA, the project found one supporter in Chair Mary Beth Berns. “I am going to be the anomaly. I think it’s a really good idea. I understand waffling” as to specifics of a plan when forced to adjust to complaints and requirements from the community and the City. “The same thing happened just last week,” she said, “when an architect speaking on behalf of a project agreed to make whatever changes the City asked. . ‘I don’t know – I will do whatever you want me to do,’ he said.”
The applicant’s “lack of sophistication has hurt him drastically,” Ms. Berns said of Mr. Kats, a Ukrainian native who has developed numerous projects in the area. Addressing him she added, “Your application is not different from what we hear frequently. I want to see economic development. That’s where I disagree with the rest of you.”
She was indeed an anomaly. Ms. McAuley said, “Twiggs Park is just a jewel in the neighborhood.” Any project adjacent to it “has to go above and beyond. It’s going to be the front porch for Twiggs Park….this project does not meet the standards of excellence in the community.”
Myrna Arevalo said, “This is half baked – pardon the pun – for this bakery. You have not satisfied in my opinion what your final project is going to be.”
Only Chair Berns voted to recommend the special use and variance. Every other member voted to recommend denial.
The matter now proceeds to City Council with negative recommendations in tow. Ald. Rue Simmons said she was not giving up, and hoped Council would seriously consider the proposal.