The Evanston Zoning Board of Appeals denied a request on Feb. 20 for zoning relief to erect a 14-unit multiple-family residence at 3233-3249 Central St. and sent the project’s developers back to the drawing boards.
Among the variances sought by Schermerhorn and Co. for the Highlands on Central project were those allowing for 14 units, when zoning allowed for only 10, and 62.1% impervious surface coverage where a maximum 55% is allowed. The project would have replaced nine 60-year-old row houses currently at the location with the 14 new units that would have rented for about $2,500 a month.
Project official Dan Schermerhorn said at the meeting that the existing row-house development had “reached the end of its useful life” and that the variances were necessary for the site to be feasible.
But several community members attending the meeting disagreed, with some arguing that the developers had not been cooperative with neighbors of the property and insisting that the variances they sought were only necessitated by what many said were “self-imposed” hardships with respect to finances only.
Neighbor Doug Hood said that, though the developers extolled the benefits of the changes, they had already cut down heritage trees in the area.
“I’ve been part of three different petitions to get the alley paved, and [development stakeholder] Evanston Bond & Mortgage has been the thorn in everyone’s side,” he added. “[Despite] this nonsense about being ‘a good neighbor,’ they’ve been refusing to participate in any efforts to get the alley paved. … They don’t want the tax levy.”
In response, Mr. Schermerhorn pledged future cooperation on that matter, however. “We are more than happy to participate in the paving of the alley,” he said.
Another neighbor, Peter Groepper, said that the project principals were “building way bigger than they’re supposed to. There are building and zoning requirements for a reason, to help us maintain what they’ve got.”
Board members largely concurred. Member Mary McAuley noted that “there was much to like in the project” but added that it “needs more give-and-take” with the principals trying to work within existing ordinances.
Member Scott Gingold praised the developers’ efforts to keep a look consistent with the neighborhood but similarly said that he was “struggling to understand, under the zoning ordinance, the hardship that is unique to the property” necessitating variances.
“It will require some work on your part to rethink what’s feasible,” he added.
Member Violetta Cullen said, “I feel like we should go along with what our current code says, and I feel that [the project] can be developed in a way to benefit both the developer and the community if it were reworked.”
Board Chair Mary Beth Berns added, “I appreciate what you’ve tried to do, but your approach – your single-minded focus on the one product type – perhaps led you down a path that you couldn’t get out of. Unfortunately, I cannot support this project.”
When reviewing the standards for granting a variance, Ms. Berns said that, while the new buildings would look more pleasant than the current structures, the changes in density and surface coverage would have an adverse effect on the neighborhood. Furthermore, she said developers were indeed primarily asking for the variances based on feasibility.
“The financial decision is that the [project] needs 14 units, but unfortunately the financial decision is not something that we get to consider with zoning variances,” added Ms. Berns.
The final vote was 4-1 against the project, with member Myrna Arevalo, who called the proposal “well-thought out,” voting in its favor.