Proposed Albion 287-unit building. Rendering from City of Evanston  

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Albion’s proposed 287-unit building spanning much of the block now containing the Tommy Nevin’s and Prairie Moon restaurants was held in the Planning and Development Committee on Sept. 25 over concerns expressed by three aldermen about the mix of units, the precedent set, the scale of the building, and the lack of a “ziggurat” setback at the southern corner of the building.

Other aldermen on the committee expressed qualified support, praising the decision to include 15 units of affordable housing on site, the economic activity the new residents would bring to Evanston’s downtown, and the proposed public benefits.

The project has been well publicized by an activist group lobbying against what they term “mega-developments” downtown. It would sit on a roughly triangle-shaped lot lodged between the CTA tracks and Sherman Avenue, north of Lake Street toward Grove Street on what opponents call one of the most charming blocks in Evanston, and supporters call an underdeveloped tract, across the street from the Holiday Inn and a low-rise parking deck.

The two local businesses most affected were unequivocal in their support, despite the fact both will be closed once construction starts. Robert Strom, one of the owner-operators of Prairie Moon, said he spoke to “tell everyone, without question, we are very much in support” of the project. His restaurant sits next to two vacant lots, he said, and much of the nearby commercial space has been vacant for years. “We have worked out a scenario” by which Prairie Moon will come back, in some form, in the new building, he added. “In my opinion, the building is tasteful, and I come out in full support of it,” he concluded.

Rohit Sahajpal, the owner-operator of Tommy Nevin’s, was equally in support, if a bit more downbeat. “Speaking of Tommy Nevin’s, we’re about to close,” he said. He cited declining revenue and environmental contamination on the site as problems leading to the sale of the property to the developer. He said the new building would “drive more revenue to our other stores and businesses by bringing more residents into downtown.”

As for Pete Miller’s, Ed Carilla, its manager, said the restaurant was experiencing “decreased revenue year over year” caused in part by “decreased foot traffic.” He said, “it is hard to increase when there isn’t the foot traffic we’re accustomed to … the bottom line is we need more people in the area.” He said he fully supported the project.

They were not alone, as a number of residents rose in support of the project. The supporters gave the same or similar reasons – more people make a more vibrant downtown, and small businesses need people in order to survive.

The opponents told a radically different story, with complaints falling into a number of categories. Some spoke of technical issues, such as the ziggurat setback and parking deficiencies, though at least one said too much parking was proposed. Others called the “transition” from downtown to residential lacking, though the location borders no residential sites due to the train track separation, and on the other side of the tracks are a water-pumping facility and commercial building, in addition to at least one residence. Others decried the density, the lack of human scale, and the size of what they called “micro-units.” The character of the block as well as that of the downtown overall also raised concerns. Finally, some found the affordable housing component insufficient, alleging Fair Housing Act violations, though they did not present evidence of the alleged violations.

Both the developer and a group opposed to the development made presentations to the committee. Both presentations can be found on the City of Evanston’s website under the Oct. 9 City Council and Committee meeting materials. 

The committee struggled to wade through the opposition. Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, who signaled likely opposition to the project, said, “There is a lot of inaccurate information out there. … The buzz of fake facts does a real disservice to the people in the City.” Among the “fake facts,” she said, was an accusation that there are seven buildings of “micro units” downtown. “That is wrong. It is not true,” she said. Accusations that the Council had a “laser focus on luxury micro – it’s not true.”

There are “really nasty rumors about important groups in the community receiving payoffs” in exchange for their support, she added. “Not true.” An unsubstantiated report circulated, alleging that a local nonprofit received what can only be called a bribe.

As if to drive her point home, when Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, spoke, she praised the inclusion of 15 units of on-site affordable housing in the development. “There are many good things about this project, and to dismiss the fact there are 15 units of affordable housing is deplorable.” She called the on-site units “historical.”

“They are temporary,” shouted someone in the crowd. “Affordable until they raise the rent.”

“Our inclusionary housing ordinance requires” that the units remain affordable” for 25 years, corrected Ald. Wynne. “Affordable” is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development definitions tied to Area Median Income (AMI), with Evanston’s ordinance requiring units spread between 50% and 80% of AMI .

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said, “This project has my attention” because of the “15 units of affordable housing in a ward that does not ordinarily” provide much. She pushed for a different mix of public benefits, suggesting the developer “rethink” a $60,000 DIVVY bike contribution in exchange for something benefiting more Evanstonians. “I would challenge the developer to meet the [Minority-/Women-/and Evanston-Based Enterprise] MWEBE goals” and hire more women, while employing Evanston residents. Largely, however, she appeared in support of the project.

Likewise, Alderman Don Wilson, whose Fourth Ward, includes the site, signaled support.  He addressed the “character of the block” arguments of opponents, saying, “It’s not the most special block in town.”

Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, both indicated opposition, with Ald. Fiske most troubled by the ziggurat setback problem and the creation of a “canyon entrance into the downtown.”

The matter will return to the Committee on Oct. 23, which sets up to be a long meeting.