Rendering of proposed Merion Legacy building, 1621-31 Chicago Ave. by Pappageorge Haymes

Design Evanston, a group of local design professionals, recently reviewed a proposed downtown “planned development.”  In April Horizon Realty Group presented the proposed Merion Legacy residential development at 1621-31 Chicago Ave. to members of Design Evanston.

The “planned development” designation means that the project, if approved, will be non-compliant, for its zoning district, with Evanston’s Zoning Code  (adopted in 1993.)  Developers of a planned development may request “site development allowances” from the City in areas that the project will be non-compliant (i.e., coverage of the lot, building height, parking requirements, number of dwelling units.)  

To qualify for the development allowances, each project must include one or more “public benefits”, such as inclusion of affordable housing (beyond what is required by the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance,) public art, a bike sharing station, streetscape and alley improvements and others).

Developers are encouraged by City staff to get public feedback on their projects by making presentations to neighborhood groups, or to organizations such as Design Evanston.

Design Evanston members used the standards they have developed for their reviews of other major development projects.

“Proposed projects should address a perceived need in the City or community, provide for a beneficial and appropriate use within the geographical context of the proposed project and be of appropriate and complementary size, scale and proportion for its particular physical context. “

The comments below summarize Design Evanston’s assessment of The Legacy, using Design Evanston standards.

In general, attending members had a favorable impression of this project and the care that Horizon Realty Group has taken to serve the needs of Evanston and its citizens. In some cases there was, understandably, not enough information provided at this level of development to answer some of Design Evanston’s questions. Recommended areas for further study and improvement, and questions, are given below, according Design Evanston’s Evaluative Criteria/Standards.

The Design Evanston consensus is that the City should work with the developer to approve the project, and that additional design strategies could be implemented during this process to satisfy everyone’s concerns.

Address a perceived need in the City/community.

• Design Evanston does not have data to evaluate the need for high-end rental such as this project.

•The Task Force for Age-Friendly Evanston suggested that this project include amenities for an older age group than 55.

• Although the developer referenced “public benefits,” they were not articulated or described.

• The City has indicated a need for office space. Could this be incorporated on the lower floors?

• The project, per City requirements, includes funds to add to Evanston’s affordable housing through payment-in-lieu. Affordable housing folded into the general community (i.e., within the building itself) is a perceived need and is recommended here if possible. 

Provide for a beneficial and appropriate use in the project’s geographical context.

• Residential, office and retail are typical in this context, and this building falls within the residential category.

• Some office use would be a plus toward furthering the City’s stated goals/needs.

Be of appropriate and complementary size, scale and proportion for its respective physical context.

• The project is larger than zoning dictates now, which results in a feeling of bulk and being overbuilt. It may be possible to mitigate this through design without actually reducing the building height or mass.

• What are the public benefits that Horizon Realty Group can offer to justify variances in height and FAR (floor-area ratio)?  

Design Evanston submitted these comments to City staff, City Council and the Mayor, and to Horizon Realty Group, the developer.

The Merion Legacy project was presented to a First Ward meeting on March 5 and to City staff at the July 17 meeting of the Design and Project Review (DAPR) Committee.

Because staff indicated that it was unlikely that the Committee could recommend approval at that time, Horizon Realty Group decided to return to a future DAPR meeting with revisions.

Ellen Galland

Ellen Galland has had an architectural practice in Evanston since 1983. For more than 20 years, she has written articles for the RoundTable, including the column “Ask An Architect" and "The Green Column"...