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The proposed 15-story 273-unit apartment building planned unit development for 1452-1508 Sherman Ave. was introduced at City Council on Oct. 23 by 6-3 vote. The ordinance proposed ordinance permitting the development will return for final vote Nov. 13. At present, Prairie Moon restaurant and Tommy Nevin’s Pub occupy the bulk of the site.
Introduction a big step forward for the embattled project, which has faced the ire of a vocal opposition group known as “Evanstonians for Responsible Development” on Facebook, where the logo is a rendering of the Albion building with a red circle slash through it.
On Oct. 23, the developer presented only the modifications to the project since the last meeting, Oct. 9, when the matter was held in the Planning and Development Committee for further discussion. “We take very seriously everything that we hear,” said Andrew Yule of Albion. “We decided to reduce the building by a floor” taking the height down to 145 feet from 156 feet as recently as Oct. 9. The number of units dropped from 286 to 273, and 5 feet were added to the ziggurat setback (the step-like setback from ground level to the main structure rising up) on the south end of the building.
Mr. Yule also addressed the widely spread comments calling the development one of “microunits.” “I want to reassure you – these are not microunits,” he said. All units will have full- sized, not compact, appliances. He called the mix of studio, one-, and two-bedroom units the “classic unit mix in the marketplace today.”
The development as proposed will have 91 studios, 56 convertible (permitting a resident to wall off a bedroom if desired), 81-one bedroom, and 45-two bedroom units.
Those who said they opposed the development did not appear satisfied with these changes. Two small business owners across the street and to the north of the building said construction would impact their business, particularly with parking limited.
John Moore objected to the “claimed public benefit for the project,” and urged Council to “think very carefully about that.” He called some of the benefits “one time,” while the building is there for decades and decades.
Mr. Yule said Albion is flexible when it comes to public benefits and will adjust to what Council proposes.
The opposition group also hired an economist, Tim Allison from Argonne National Labs, to address the economic impact of the new building. Mr. Allison said “incomes haven’t kept up with rising costs” resulting in a loss of affordable housing units in Evanston. He said the impact was greater on African Americans because as a group they make less money that Caucasian counterparts in the City. Rising rents are “pricing African Americans out of the local housing market in Evanston,” he said.
The Albion development, by adding 273 higher-priced units to the housing mix, “only increases rent and house prices in Evanston as a whole,” said Mr. Allison.
“My knee-jerk reaction to what I just heard,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, is “one of the main reasons for rent being so high in any community is vacancy rate. Evanston has a very low vacancy rate. … One way to gain vacancy is to build more units.” People move in to new units and leave vacant less-new units, making those vacant units available for other renters. “Units built in the 50s and 60s are more available” at lower rents than brand new units, she said.
When some in the crowd started to shout her down, Ald. Rainey asked for quiet, and said, “I’ve been bullied enough.”
Alderman Don Wilson, whose Fourth Ward includes the proposed project, said, “I did hear what I consider to be very legitimate concerns,” especially from nearby businesses that would be impacted by parking issues. But other complaints concerned him.
“I’m very bothered by hearing, ‘Black residents won’t live there.’… This is a building that would house people. People would live there. They might be your neighbors. You might go on bike rides with there. I am stunned at some of the insulting language about who would live there.” The building would be open to anyone and everyone, Ald. Wilson said.
If instead of the Nevins-Moon building, a development of four-story townhouses went there, “you can’t tell me they are going to be affordable.” Rather, such a project would be “unbelievably not affordable,” Ald. Wilson continued.
“This building is not going to tear down any existing housing,” said Ald. Wilson, but instead increase the overall housing stock in the City.
“There is no one project that is going to solve our affordable housing issue,” said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward. As for Black residents leaving the community, she said “we have a lot more that we should be talking about other than this development,” specifically houses in the Fifth Ward being bought up by developers without hitting the MLS [multiple-listing service] system. She urged activists to turn their focus in another direction.
“I do want to continue discussing” the project, especially the size of the units and a different mix of public benefits, she said. But overall, Ald. Rue Simmons signaled support.
“It appears to me there is fear-mongering” among the opposition, Ald. Rue Simmons said. “No one is being displaced” by the project. One business, Tommy Nevins, is closing, and another, Prairie Moon, will open again in the new building.
Three aldermen said they could not support the project, though. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “I am not convinced we need more rental development in downtown right now.” She compared downtown Evanston to Wrigley Field, and the proposed new buildings as converting it instead to Sox Park. Finally, addressing the proposed public benefits, she said, “I don’t want to hear about DIVVY bike stations any more. No transit ticker in the lobby.” Those benefits help residents but not the community as a whole, she said.
Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said she was “kind of hung up on zoning and what the building looks like. …. I am concerned about what the building will look like on the street level.” She returned to a theme she has stressed for months: a coherent vision for Evanston’s downtown. The downtown plan, passed in 2009, centered on a huge core building at 708 Church St. that was never built. The plan was never codified and therefore serves as guidance only, but without the centerpiece building it has lost coherence.
“I have asked staff to prepare a memo as to what the City thinks qualifies as a public benefit in planned developments,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. Developers and Council will then know what options are available, and what to encourage.
Turning to the Nevins-Moon building, Ald. Wynne said, “I do think this project is very compelling for a number of reasons,” citing the 15 units of affordable housing, increased foot traffic for downtown businesses, and the willingness of “Mr. Yule and his team to listen and make changes.” But she added, “I can’t support this building in this location.” She called for a smaller building to transition from the downtown core to residential areas.
By a 4-3 vote, the project passed out of the Planning and Development committee on to full Council. There, it was introduced by 6-3 vote. It will return for final debate and vote Nov. 13.