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On Jan. 22, City Council’s Planning and Development Committee voted 6-1 to reject the proposed 33-story, 318-unit building at the corner of Davis Street and Chicago Avenue, ending the project for now. The lone vote in favor of the project came from Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, whose efforts to table the proposal for four months – time in which she asked the developer to rework the project – failed as well.
The developer, Vermilion Development, brought the project forward to the committee despite having received a negative recommendation from the City’s Plan Commission and City staff. From the outset, the sheer number – and the volume – of the site development allowances necessitated by the plans proved too much for every one of the reviewing bodies who studied the proposal.
Allowances included more than tripling the number of units permitted as a matter of right, from 93 allowed to a proposed 318. The permitted floor area ratio is 8.0, but the developer sought an increase to 12.25. Building height similarly was more than permitted levels – from a permitted 220 feet to 313 feet high, which would have made it the tallest building in Evanston.
Continuing a trend among all recent developments, the project would also have provided only 176 of a required 267 parking spaces.
Also continuing a recent trend among developments, the 601 Davis project sought exceptions from the City’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance. Under the IHO, unless authorized by City Council, new developments must provide onsite affordable units, as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or make an in-lieu payment to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund of $100,000 per missing unit. The 601 Davis project could have complied with the IHO by providing 32 onsite units or $3.2 million in in-lieu payments, or some combination thereof.
Instead, Vermilion proposed providing just four onsite units. Rather than the required $2.8 million remaining contribution, Vermillion proposed making a $1.5 million donation to St. Vincent de Paul to administer a rental assistance program geared toward homeless students in the Evanston School Districts.
The project would have also filled in a vacant lot sitting in the heart of downtown and removed most of the seven-lane drive-through now serving mostly as a parking lot and ATM-access point. Further, the developer would have preserved the University Building at the corner of Davis Street and Chicago Avenue, and incorporated it into the new structure. Retail would have been added to Davis Street, and customers for downtown shops would have bene brought in to live in a new high rise. Property taxes would have increased.
But the size and scale of the building and the affordable-housing element proved to be too much for the aldermen on P&D Committee. “At the end of the day, I’m just not comfortable with this project as currently configured,” said Alderman Don Wilson, whose Fourth Ward includes the project site.
“I’m a big fan of building as-of-right,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. Site plan developments as extensive as those sought by the developer asked for too much.
Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said the project brought many good elements, such as preserving the University Building and developing an underused site. “But height and density go too far for this site,” she said. “It is almost 100 feet too tall,” and the number of units is “far in excess of the 93 permitted by zoning.”
Ald. Revelle also said paying a fee in lieu into the City’s affordable housing fund “is a more comprehensive approach” to addressing affordable housing than a developer’s picking one private charity to contribute to.
“It’s not necessarily the number of variance, it’s what the variances are,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd ward. “I don’t think the public benefits are sufficient,” she added.
“Over the last few days, I have heard from every corner of the Fifth Ward” from residents in “opposition to this project,” said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, most citing the affordable housing component as a reason. “I have to stand firm on affordable housing. Four onsite units when it should be 32? It’s too far off base.”
“I agree the variances [sought] are pretty extreme,” said Ald. Rainey. But she added, “I don’t want to wait another ten years” for a proposal to fill in the vacant lot on Davis Street. She proposed the committee “table this for four months to see if we can get another iteration of this… I would just hate to lose an opportunity for a wonderful” development at Davis and Chicago. The project “has some bone, has some spirit, has some design,” she said.
Both Alds. Wynne and Fiske jumped in to oppose tabling the proposal. “I can’t support that,” said Ald. Wynne. The Vermillion proposal was rejected by the City’s DAPR [Design and Project Review] Committee and the Plan Commission, she said, “and did not make any changes” before coming to the Planning and Development Committee. “I am not willing to reward a developer for ignoring our planning process and getting up here and getting a four-month extension,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any version of this building I can support.
“If they make that many changes, it’s a new project and they should go back” through the DAPR and Plan Commission process, she said.
Ald. Rainey’s tabling motion never came to a vote. The committee voted 5-1 to reject the project.