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A developer’s proposal for an office building on an odd-shaped lot next to the library at 1714-20 Chicago Ave. is moving forward, thanks to a late design change that attempts to address concerns leveled at the project.
At the City Council Planning & Development (P&D) Committee meeting Feb. 11, aldermen voted 5-2 to move the issue for introduction to the full City Council.
The action sets up a vote for approval on the proposal, which looked to be on the ropes after City staff and the Plan Commission had recommended against approval.
At the Jan. 28 P&D Committee meeting, Ald. Judy Fiske, in whose First Ward the site is located, asked the developer to look at whether the building could be scaled down from 13 to 11 stories. Her request came in the wake of criticism from some aldermen and others that the bigger building was not part of the City’s original request for proposal and contract with the developer to sell its lot.
The developer’s new proposal, which was not released until just before the start of the Feb. 11 P&D meeting, calls for dropping a four-level parking garage back down to three, in line with the original proposal.
Describing the changes, Paul Janicki, the architect for the developer, told aldermen that the proposal also reduces the office space from nine stories to eight, also in line with the original request for proposal and contract with the City.
Mr. Janicki said the new design will provide for 74 public parking spaces — the same number of spaces in the City-owned surface lot that is the site of the proposed new building.
In discussion, Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, the two P&D members to vote against the proposal, pointed to other issues that had triggered concerns from staff and the Plan Commission in their vote against the project.
Ald. Wynne asked Mr. Janicki whether the design changes included addressing issues with the busy alley that runs along the project and that staff said would be “compromised” in the extension of the new building’s property line.
Mr. Janicki challenged that description, pointing to professional traffic studies and tests – including the Fire Department’s testing whether its large rigs had room to maneuver in the space.
He noted further that the developer had contracted for professional traffic studies of the area, while the City engineer had reached the conclusion without any such research.
“I disagree with you,” responded Ald. Wynne. “Your professional engineer was paid for by the developer of the project, and our professional engineer was paid for by the taxpayers, many of whom use that alley.”
Ald. Revelle, chairing the meeting, expressed appreciation to the developer that the proposed building is closer to what the City’s purchase and sales agreement called for.
But she said she still had important concerns not addressed, including the impact “of such a large building on the adjacent landmark properties — the Frances Willard Museum to the north and Evanston’s Woman’s Club to the south — with a minimal five-foot side-yard setback between the office building and those structures.
“That’s really going to crowd those adjacent landmark properties to their detriment,” she said.
She said the lack of the required 15-foot setback on the north “is going to doom the historic trees that are right along the border of the WCTU campus. The trees won’t survive, losing half their crowns and half their roots, and having such a tall building so close to that property is going to make it really difficult. It will cast a deep shadow over that property pretty much for the whole year.”
Ald. Revelle said she also continues to be concerned about the impact of the development on the alley.
“The proposed extension of the building into the alley makes it even more crowded and constricted,” she maintained, “and further impairs the sight lines for traffic.”
She said she would hold off addressing the public benefits the developer has proposed for the project, including bringing a local arborist to explore options for the trees affected.
“I don’t think the public benefits really offset the many site developments that are being requested,” Ald. Revelle said. “The $4 million dollars that would come to the City with the sale of the property is certainly appealing, but I don’t think we should accept it in exchange for an inappropriate building that is so incompatible with its landmark use.”
During citizen comment on the issue, several speakers called on aldermen to send the issue back through the hearing process for a thorough review of the newly released details.
Sara Schastok, one of the speakers, noted that the proposed changes came in late in the afternoon before the meeting.
“It’s just at the 11th hour, two strikes before midnight that we hear something different,” she said.
Bruce Enenbach, another speaker, told aldermen that the new proposal rendered the material in the Council packet about the project “obsolete.”
“This is a different building,” he said. “It needs to go through Zoning again, it needs to go through DAPR [the City’s Design & Project Committee] and through Planning [the City’s Plan Commission]. “The reason it was recommended not to go forward didn’t have to do with height,” he said. “It had to do with parking and six other variances, and none of those has changed.”
Sarah Ward, the national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, also spoke, noting that “our Willard House is over 150 years old and the first house in the whole Chicago area recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. We have lots of people coming and we’re experiencing more as we do some more development. I just wonder, going down Chicago Avenue, you’re going to ruin the scene of that block.”
Aldermen on the P&D Committee voted to send the issue to the Council to be introduced.
In support of the move, Ald. Fiske noted that the developer has already spent a quarter of a million dollars getting the project to this point.
She proposed that aldermen consider whether the proposed changes were amenable to them rather than having the developer investing more money, redoing his entire application.
Ald. Fiske expressed hope that the Council would introduce the matter and that the developer make all documents available to aldermen supporting the change when they consider the issue again in two weeks.
Responding to comments during citizen comment that approval of the project amounted to “spot zoning,” the alderman noted an 85-foot high building is permitted under current zoning with an additional 12 feet in height beyond that – “which is roughly a taller building than we’re talking about here.”
She said, “When we first had a meeting with the adjacent building owners one of the benefits that was raised was the fact that an office building would be a quieter, cleaner use for all of its neighbors – especially if you’re looking at a residential building in the heart of downtown that has a lot of ‘move in. move- out’ effect on neighbors [when residential]. So an office building tends to be quieter after dark; it tends to be dark. It doesn’t impede on anyone else’s enjoyment of their residential properties.”
City Clerk Devon Reid told the RoundTable that seven votes are needed to approve the project. In cases where 30% of the property owners in the nearby area submit a petition, three fourths of the aldermen are required to give a favorable vote on a zoning map change such as needed in this case.