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Residents in the Orrington Avenue/Foster Street area are calling on the City to rezone their properties single family, seeking protection from the spread of student rooming houses they say are having a deleterious effect on their neighborhood.
Aldermen are expected to discuss residents request for the change at the next City Council meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 29.
The meeting can be viewed online at www.cityofevanston.org/channel16, or on Cable Channel 16.
The residents through Alderman Judy Fiske, in whose northeast First Ward, the properties are located, are seeking a change from R-4, which allows a variety of residential buildings, including the rooming houses, to R-1 classification, which limits uses to strictly single family.
If approved, the change would affect 12 properties located between 1910 and 1946 Orrington Ave. as well as 714-716 Foster St.
Those blocks currently consist of a mix of largely single-family homes, along with a two-unit building, a multi-family building, and a licensed rooming house, staff said in a report.
Located within the federally and locally designated Northeast Historic District, the properties have had higher density zoning designation for several decades, officials noted.
In the initial hearing of the issue at the Sept. 14, City Council Planning & Development Committee meeting, though, residents in the affected blocks spoke of conditions worsening in recent years.
David Schoenfeld, a member of the Northwestern Neighbors Association for 25 years, most recently the group’s president, told aldermen that that the change was needed.
“The neighborhood has worked extremely hard for decades to protect its residential character against the constant threat of development pressures,” he said, “and the prospect of a range of absentee ownership and rental houses on the 1900 block is as great a threat to their residential character as we as we have faced in at least 25 years.”
Another speaker, Max Ross, a resident of the 1900 block of Orrington Avenue, told Committee members that when he first there 12 years ago, there were not any student houses near him.
He said there are now three and, “we’ve experienced problems in 12 months that we haven’t never experienced in the 12 years – including noise, public drunkenness, urination, other issues,” he said.
“One of the reasons developers are attracted to this area is the option of converting these properties to three or four flats, more with the coach house, to maximize profitability by squeezing in as many students as possible,” he said. “These converted properties would be extremely appealing for Greek houses and other large student groups. Developers have been asking about buying these houses on this block for this exact purpose.”
He acknowledged that under the current system the owners seeking to convert the properties would have to go through the City’s special use process, which sets conditions to be met and requires a public hearing.
But “the outcome would be unpredictable and it would the burden on neighbors to fight developers every attempt,” he said.
He said if the current request for a zoning change doesn’t go through he’ll have to sell his house.
“And what family will buy a house next to what I’ve described to you —several large groups of students in consecutive houses sharing a large yard that is perfect for beer pong tables, and huge parties?” he asked aldermen. “Would you buy a house next to that?”
But attorney Shawn Jones, who represents three of the 12 property owners who would be affected by the change, called the zoning change “a rather radical” response to the issue.
“This is a mixed density area,” Mr. Jones noted. “Obviously, it’s been R-4 for a long time. It just doesn’t make sense to downsize to the most restrictive residential zoning available. It is the opposite of equity – it is the preservation of privilege.”
Further, Mr. Jones said, a zoning change would not necessarily stop the beer pong parties and other activities the residents have complained about.
“Anyone can do that in their yard in an R-1, just as easily as in an R-4,” he said.
He noted that the City’s Plan Commission, an advisory body, had voted to recommend against residents request for a zoning change on the issue.
City staff also suggested the change might not work to the City’s favor in their report on the issue.
“The R4a general residential district is intended to protect the residential character of this district by providing for a mix of residential types at a medium density in terms of number of dwellings and mass of structures compatible with the single-and two-family detached structures which predominate in this district,” wrote Meagan Jones, the City’s Neighborhood and Land Use Planner, quoting from the City’s Zoning Ordinance’s Document statement.
She noted that the City’s Comprehensive Plan, which speaks about desired uses for areas, “identified this block-face as mixed low density. The proposed rezoning would ensure that the largely single-family character of the block-face remains through stricter regulation of uses and bulk of structures.”
However, she noted, “as market needs and affordability change, there should be some flexibility in the type of housing that is permitted.”
“Downzoning prevents the ability to create this variety in an area that is in close proximity to transit, the lakefront, and numerous amenities,” she wrote.
But Arthur Newman, who served as alderman of the ward where the block is located for 14 years, spoke in favor of the rezoning.
“While I was on the Council,” he told Committee members, “the call I got most was about buying these types of properties to be specifically rented to students.”
“It causes all types of problems,” he told the Council members. “I’ll just give you an example. On parking, if you put 12 students into one of these houses that’s potentially 12 cars.”
He said one of the properties sold during his tenure “was the most magnificent landscaped properties on the block.”
Six months after the owner sold it – “it was then owned by people who live in Northbrook,” he said – “I found the landscape was virtually destroyed, the front bottom unit was boarded up because the window was bashed in.”
“So these people are fighting for their property values,” he said of the residents seeking the zoning change. “They’re trying to have some control over their future.”