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A planned 33-story tower on Davis Street faces a new hurdle.
The Evanston Plan Commission, after a meeting lasting over three hours, voted 7-0 on Nov. 29 to recommend that City Council reject a proposal for 601 Davis St. – currently a vacant lot and a bank drive-through lane – that would place a 353-foot tower on the site.
Commissioners were wary of the multiple allowances the developers, Chicago-based Vermilion Enterprises, were asking for, as well as the scale of the proposed building in relation to the rest of the area.
City staff also recommended the proposal be rejected.
Once members deliberated, Commissioner Carol Goddard said, “I think the scale is inappropriate… it’s too dense, too high, too many variances. It’s not a good fit.”
Commission Chair Jim Ford said he would have been more enthusiastic about the project if only it could have been located “six inches to the west or northwest,” adding that “the issue here is not the absolute height, but the heights from one zone to the next.”
Mr. Ford explained that since the site was on the edge of its development zone, rather than at a central location within it, the building’s scale would not be in sync with surrounding buildings as the City’s development plan intended.
Other commissioners had reservations about parking logistics and traffic-flow around the building. Some questioned whether a developer should be granted an allowance for minimum parking spaces – Vermilion was asking for 176, when the requirement is 267 – when the City had already recently lowered the required minimum from 452.
Vermilion’s CEO, Dave Cocagne, said that the allowances needed were absolutely necessary to make the project fiscally sound. Vermilion had committed to the preservation and restoration of the neighboring University Building and was also constrained by the site’s other neighbor, Chase Bank.
“We have asked for what we think is needed to make the project viable,” he said.
Some community members expressed some support for the project during the public meeting, among them Jack Weiss of Design Evanston and resident Chris Botti.
But others expressed trepidation. Resident Carl Klein said the project “obliterates the zoning codes,” adding, “There’s a reason we have a zoning code. … We should not let developers dictate the character of our community.”
“Developers should be complying with codes” instead of seeking ways around them, added resident Ivan Hall.
The project exemplified “gentrification on steroids,” said resident Clare Kelly, who also questioned why the Commission recused itself from discussion of Vermilion’s compliance with the City’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance (IHO).
Mr. Ford and Assistant City Attorney Mario Treto maintained that the matter was under the purview of the City Council, though the Plan Commission would put public comments about affordable housing compliance into the record.
Both Ms. Kelly and resident Keira Kelly said the Commission engaged discussion about IHO compliance when the fate of the recently approved Albion Residential development on Sherman Avenue was on the table.
Vermilion’s project would contain four affordably priced units. But Mr. Cocagne has said that his firm would contribute to an Evanston non-profit organization or similar entity helping persons who are unstably housed or experiencing homelessness – which, he maintained, would be of more immediate assistance to the City – to be in compliance with the IHO. Prudence Moylan of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul praised that strategy during the hearing, saying that the development could “be a much needed pilot project” towards achieving housing equity.
As for the multiple allowances, Mr. Cocagne said near the end of the hearing that seeking allowances is a normal part of business in developing new projects, adding, “There is a zoning process, and seeking allowances is a part of that.”
Commissioners Andrew Pigozzi and Colby Lewis both praised Vermilion’s ambitions with the site, though, like their colleagues, they recommended that City Council not move ahead with the proposal.
“I too have been looking at this vacant lot and wondering why it’s vacant,” said Mr. Pigozzi. “… [But] I am concerned about the height. It’s hard not to be. That’s the one thing that’s bothering me about it.”
Mr. Lewis expressed admiration for Vermilion’s attempt at a smaller-scale street front, but added, “The amount of overstepping the density seems extreme to me; [it is] more than I would be comfortable with.”
Vermilion’s proposal next goes for a vote before the City Council.