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City Council on Sept. 25 voted 6-2 to sell the open parking lot behind the Main Library and adjacent to the Woman’s Club building to a private developer. The developers plan an 11-story office building, with sufficient parking underneath to replace the existing surface-lot spaces and meet the parking needs of office tenants in the building.
The vote ends the first phase of the project – land acquisition – and signals the beginning of the next phase, plan approval. All buildings as large as the proposed structure must proceed through the Plan Commission as planned-unit developments, allowing public and committee input into virtually all aspects of the projects design, down to exterior materials used.
Once the project emerges from Plan Commission, it will return to City Council for final review and approval – phase three.
The sales price will be $4 million, the proceeds of which Council has indicated will be used for improvements to City parks. Once the building has been completed, a parking lot that now generates minimal parking income and no property tax revenue will be on the tax rolls, producing up to $2 million per year in property taxes at Cook County’s commercial property tax rate. Residential properties in Cook are taxed at 10%, and commercial properties at 25%.
The completed building is expected to be filled with an estimated 500 daily office workers, many of whom, supporters of the project say, will dine and shop in Evanston, adding to sales tax revenues and general vibrancy and economic activity downtown.
The tax dollars will come at a cost – the loss of a public parking lot that some call “precious” and “a jewel.”
At citizen comment, Tricia Connelly urged Council to convert the “most coveted piece of land” into a “public theme space about women.” The parking lot’s location between the historic Women’s Club of Evanston building to the south and the Frances Willard House to the north make the space “precious,” she said.
Lori Osborne, the incoming director of the Frances Willard Museum, called the Willard House “one of the most significant women’s history sites in the country, if not the world.” She called on Council to view the library lot as a site for “forward-thinking heritage tourism.”
A vote to sell public land requires a two-thirds majority. Since Sixth Ward Alderman Tom Suffredin was out of town, there was little margin for error when it came time to vote. Because of the number of controversial items on the agenda, that time came near 1 a.m. Tuesday morning.
“In May I voted to authorize the sale hoping they would modify” their proposal, said Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward. “I see no evidence of the kind of changes I was hoping for.” She cited the five-foot setback to the north, which will “overwhelm the Willard House.” She said “trees might be lost,” and there was “no setback from the alley.”
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, agreed, saying the plans tried to “shoehorn [the building] into too small a site, and the wrong site.” As with Ald. Revelle, she said setbacks were too narrow and “alley issues are already terrible. … I’m not sure what the right project is [for the site], but this most certainly is not it.”
But the alderman of the ward in which the site sits, Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, spoke in glowing terms about the project and the developers. “The project will provide Class A office space in the downtown, something we desperately need,” she said. “The development team was interested in being responsive,” more so than any developer she ever worked with, she said. “This is going to be a landmark building in our downtown. … I understand [the concerns] of the Woman’s Club, but we have to weigh the benefits” of the new project, she concluded.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he understood the concerns of the neighboring properties as well. “The Willard House is at greater risk,” he said, “but I believe those concerns will be mitigated” when the project goes through the Plan Commission and Council final review process, he said.
I was hoping to get something brilliant, but what I think we’re getting is something very important,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. She recalled what it “used to be like to have the Washington National” building downtown and full of office workers. “Those people used to empty out at lunchtime” and fill the streets with shoppers and diners. The new project “will be the best thing we’ve seen for small business in downtown Evanston for a long time,” she said.
Alderman Cecily Fleming, 9th Ward, called on City Staff to address transparency concerns raised by some residents. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz responded, saying, “We began this process in earnest in July 2016.” There have been many public meetings, both First Ward meetings and City meeting with DAPR and Council, with many such meeting covered in the press [including the RoundTable, which has covered the issue in multiple articles since it first arose].
“I can’t get excited about an office building,” said Ald. Fleming, but she indicated she would vote to support it. Council voted 6-2, with Alds. Revelle and Wynne voting no.