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Evanston City Council members rejected a developers’ proposal to build an 11-story office building in what is now a public library parking lot, bringing closure to the issue that had fanned strong resident sentiments.
Residents of nearby buildings had raised strenuous concerns during the nearly three-year process and two City committees had recommended denial of the project, raising concerns about the height and bulk of the building in that space, as well as the safety of an alley that the building would back into.
Because enough residents in the area had signed petitions in opposition, the developers needed a super-majority of City Council to approve the map amendment and zoning needed for sale of the City-owned property at 1714-20 Chicago Ave.
They received five votes at the special City Council meeting March 18 – Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward; Ann Rainey, 8th Ward; and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward. Voting against the proposal were Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Donald Wilson, 4th Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward.
Much of the previous public discussion of the proposal had been devoted to height and bulk of building and impact on two historic structures – the Woman’s Club, which sits to the south at 1702 Chicago Ave. and the Frances Willard Museum Campus to the north.
At the March 18 meeting, discussion turned to the busy alley that bends around the property line. The applicant, represented by Paul Janicki Architects, had proposed that the City vacate a portion of it to extend the office building farther south – a move that would “further constrict vehicular movements around the bend in the alley,” City staff members said in their report.
With the changes, “our own engineer said that the alley would be compromised,” said Ald. Wynne, during discussion at the March 18 meeting. “They’re [developers] putting in a stop sign; they’re putting in a sharp turn. They’re actually asking for a slice of our alley that we never said was part of the deal.
“This is the one alley in all of our downtown where you’re likely to find people with mobility problems, seniors and parents with small children – not to mention all the Northwestern students who walk down that alley night and day, all dressed in black, naturally, and really unaware of the risk that they’re facing,” she said. “Why would you take a well-functioning multi-purpose alley – because that’s what it is – and compromise it?”
Ald. Wilson indicated that the alley also figured in his vote. “Before we entertained this, I had been in the alley, looking at it and considering the pedestrian flow concerns and some things that happened in or adjacent to that alley,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we own this property and we are making a choice to sell it or not to sell it, and we shouldn’t be doing something that makes the environment worse,” he said. He said the end result should “at least be the same, preferably a little better or a lot better. But I feel like this is going to make the situation and the circumstance worse than it is.”
Other aldermen disagreed, questioning whether the alley should be treated exceptional in this case and citing the project’s importance financially to the cash-strapped City – generating $4 million through sale of the property and potential revenue topping $1 million to the various taxing districts.
Ald. Rue Simmons said, “I do believe that this is an emergency. We just received our most recent tax assessment, and affordability is a real issue here.
“If we want to continue to celebrate our diversity here in Evanston, then some place, somewhere, we have to find a place to compromise,” she told Council members. “I have calls from landowners that have received tax assessments up more than 100% from last year, and those fees will be carried over to the families that are already having a hard time affording staying here in Evanston.”
Ald. Rue Simmons said it was her belief that all alleys in Evanston were to be pedestrian-friendly. “This is the first time I’m hearing of this,” she said of a report summarizing staff concerns.
If there are perceived problems with the alley, proposed improvements will not necessarily make that better, she argued. A better course might be pedestrians using different routes than the alley to get to their destinations, she suggested.
She suggested officials work toward “making it more like an alley and have a property that brings some economic activities to the broader community that we legitimately say we want to be more diverse.”
Other aldermen, also in support of the project, questioned the alley as a basis for not supporting the development.
“If this alley is deemed to be unsafe, it makes me afraid,” responded Ald. Braithwaite, “because I have some alleys in my ward in west Evanston where people were actually shot and killed.”
Ald. Fleming noted that “people are saying that this lot could be developed, and they’re not opposed to development. But aside from putting a very small building there or some houses there, anything you put there is going to cause more traffic – whether it’s 10 more cars or 50 more cars, you’re going to have more traffic, and the goal, I think, as Alderman Simmons said, is to make the alley safe.”
She said the City could pursue that goal by “talking to building owners about making it ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] safe from the front of the building, not the back of the building; talk to the students about using the front where it is well lit and cars can see them, not using it as cut through. I don’t think we can design our City based on the preferences of a small group of individuals.”
Ald. Wilson said in this case, “we’re not talking about people, as far as I’m aware, of getting mugged or shot or anything. We’re talking about safety as far as how the traffic for all the modes of transportation, including pedestrians, is concerned. But I don’t think any of us would choose to intentionally make an existing situation worse.”
Ald. Revelle spoke at length about her objections to the project at a previous meeting. She said the alley situation was one of the issues on her checklist.
“But I guess my primary concern is that this is a very special sensitive site between two important Evanston landmark properties, and the height and bulk of the proposed project are significantly greater than those of the adjacent properties,” she said. “The neighborhood buildings aren’t right up against the [proposed building’s] side yard, but the minimal side yard setback of only five feet on the north and south sides really do add to the feeling of a too-large building looming over its neighbors.”
But Ald. Fiske, who has spoken about the need for more office buildings well before the library lot project, charged officials were missing an important opportunity.
“As a small business owner, I think I can speak uniquely how important it is to have feet on the street,” Ald. Fiske said. “We’re going to benefit – we’re going to get that revenue, not only the revenue from this building, but we’re also going to get the people [office workers] in our downtown who are going to support downtown through thick and thin. And if you think that it is not difficult for small business owners to succeed in the limited retail space, the vintage retail space in the downtown, then you have another think coming. We have sat through meetings where real estate agents told us over and over again that we don’t have enough office space and that’s what we’re trying to address here.”
She noted that some of the same concerns raised about the library project were applied to Hyatt House Chicago/Evanston, when that extended-stay hotel opened farther south at 1515 Chicago Ave. in 2016. The hotel is also surrounded by condominium buildings that were directly impacted by the development, “and they’re all happy with” how it worked out, she said.
During construction, when “we had issues with the alley access we had flagmen in the alley. Everyone had access to their businesses and their condominium buildings. There were no problems because we addressed them. We’re good at addressing those issues in Evanston,” Ald. Fiske said.
“I think this is a great mistake to vote this down,” she told her colleagues, turning to the office building project. “I don’t frankly understand it.”
Both the Woman’s Club and WCTU, which had raised concerns about the project, “are both not-for-profits which pay no property taxes but do good charitable work and I appreciate that,” Ald. Fiske said, addressing members of those groups in the audience. She said the groups, though, need to understand “that we have a City that depends on property tax revenue. We went through a painful budget process. We lost employees, we had to cut service. This is very hard – we’re asking and we have asked you from the very beginning to come and partner with us,” she said in her appeal before the vote.