Proposed Albion 273-unit building. Rendering from City of Evanston

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In the face of an angry, rowdy, unruly crowd, Evanston City Council voted to approve a planned development at 1450-1508 Sherman Ave. The vote brings to a close, at least for now, the rancorous debate between an organized anti-development advocacy and a Council struggling to interpret and apply zoning laws, outdated and never-codified planning documents, and the City’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance (IHO) that by all accounts needs an overhaul. 

Wedged into a slice of the southern edge of downtown Evanston, with the Metra and CTA tracks to the west along with a water treatment facility and the police and fire headquarters, the Holiday Inn and a parking deck to the east, train tracks again to the south, the building cite was described by several as a difficult lot.  The resulting design – an undulating curved building on top of a more traditional base – seemed to stir some of the controversy. 

The project will bring 273 new units to downtown Evanston, including 15 on-site affordable units – more onsite affordable housing than any developer has ever constructed within a predominately market rent apartment building. Under the IHO, these units will remain affordable, as defined by HUD rules, for at least 25 years.  

The project will result in the demolition of long-time Evanston establishments Prairie Moon and Tommy Nevins, but no current housing will be displaced. Nevins’ owner Rohit Sahajpal said the restaurant was already set to close. “We are probably looking at November 22” as the last day for Nevins, he said during public comment. The fact that Nevins settled a foreclosure lawsuit in 2013 and environmental issues on the site make for what Mr. Sahajpal called “limited options.” 

Prairie Moon is looking for another location, according to its owners speaking at previous meetings, but will re-open in the new building when construction is complete. 

All planned developments require the identification of “public benefits,” a term that has become controversial in and of itself in recent months. Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, reiterated her call for a Council-approved list of public benefits for future developers. Aldermen Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, both offered changes to the roster of public benefits – changes that were embraced by the developer. 

Ald. Rainey’s change will take $50,000 for a public art project near the building and instead provide the money to all District 65 seventh-grade classes to take them to a performing arts performance. “That will serve 850 families,” she said, “in every neighborhood all over the City.”

Under Ald. Rue Simmons’ proposal, the developer will provide a “freight farm,” in the City’s “only registered food desert” census tract in the Fifth Ward. The freight farm – a 360 square foot container-will provide two to four tons of fresh produce a year for the West End farmers market. 

Ald. Rue Simmons also said she challenged the developer “to increase the 50% AMI units” in the building, making more affordable units available to residents earning 50% or less of the median income of all residents in Evanston. Previous plans offered units to those at 80% of AMI.

Over the last several months, the building has become a lightning rod of sorts in the affordable housing debate. Opponents Monday night called the building “a direct threat to diversity” in Evanston, “anti-black, anti-Latino,” and “against people of color,” “a Twinkie of affordable housing,” and “gentrification,” among other invectives. 

Others, however, including Sue Loellbach of Connections for the Homeless, said the development complied with the City’s IHO. Ms. Loellbach said the original proposal more than complied with the IHO through a buyout contribution to the City’s affordable housing fund. A payment in lieu of providing on-site affordable housing unit is permitted under the ordinance. She said the current proposal for 15 on-site units is “better than a buyout and fully complied with the code.” She told Council members, “make your decision based on” criteria other than affordable housing. 

“The vitriol we have all listened to is out of proportion to what this building is doing,” said Ald. Wynne, who from the start signaled her opposition to the building. “We all need to take three or four steps back… [and] dial back the level of fury and anger and vitriol.” 

The vitriol was on full display during Ald. Rainey’s comments. As she described opposition to Optima Towers and Sherman Plaza when those buildings were proposed and built, members of the crowd shouted out and called her down. “Claire Kelly your mother would be –,” began Ald. Rainey. Mayor Stephen Hagerty interrupted, called for order, and moved on to the next Alderman, Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward. 

“I have no respect for that,” said Ald. Rainey, who wanted to continue her comments. “How dare you do that to me.” She crumbled up her comments and hurled them to the ground while staring at the Mayor, then slammed her laptop closed. 

“Mr. Yule, I applaud your patience,” said Ald. Fleming, speaking to Andrew Yule of Albion Residential. “It has been disheartening to me as a lifelong Evanstonian to hear this conversation. … It is frustrating me to hear that people who care about affordable housing put it all on this building.” She said the building was not pushing African Americans out of Evanston. “I know a lot of African Americans who have moved out” well before the building was even proposed, she said, citing the District 65 referendum and its property tax increase as a reason, and the decisions “had nothing to do with the Albion” building. 

“This is not the terrible, terrible thing some are making it out to be,” said Alderman Don Wilson, whose 4th Ward includes the site of the development. “Putting a building on an empty lot is not running people out of Evanston,” he said moments earlier. The building will not replace any existing housing, only a restaurant that is about to close anyway. 

When the vote finally came, Aldermen Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward and Peter Braithwaite 2nd Ward, joined Alds. Rainey, Wilson, and Simmons in voting yes. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, joined Alds. Wynne and Fleming in voting no. The measure passed 5-4. 

That was not the end of the vitriol, as opponents stood and shouted, pointing fingers as they yelled. The disruption continued as one protested the City’s stance on the Harley Clarke mansion. Council moved on over the din, shifting to the next agenda item – the appointment of members to the subcommittee seeking to revise the IHO. 

After the meeting, in a prepared statement, Mr. Yule said, “We worked hard to listen to all voices and address the concerns we heard. Their feedback improved our plans and helped us create a responsive affordable housing solution and benefits that extend to the entire community. That process is what makes Evanston unique, and we’re proud to be part of the community. 

“Getting City Council approval was a long journey, but now the hard work begins. We look forward to keeping our promises, breaking ground in mid-2018 and delivering a project that will revitalize an important part of downtown Evanston.”