A 17-story high rise apartment building proposed for 1621-31 Chicago Avenue won’t be moving forward, wIth aldermen voting in committee against the developer’s special use request Rendering from City of Evanston materials

A developer’s nearly-three year effort to gain approval for a high-rise apartment building at 1621-31 Chicago Ave., came to a halt Oct. 26, with aldermen failing to give the proposal support to get out of committee.

Members  of the City Council’s Planning & Development Committee voted 7-0 against the Horizon Realty Group’s request for special planned development zoning – in effect, ending further City action on that particular proposal.

The developers had requested special zoning to erect a 17-story, 215- unit building at the Chicago Avenue site, on a portion of block just south of the group’s The Merion retirement community.

The proposed development site currently includes a half dozen storefront businesses as well as the popular restaurant Found.

The developers were seeking a number of major allowances for the project,  such as building to a height of 185 feet where 105 feet is allowed, having 215 dwelling units where 54 are allowed, and having 85 parking spaces where a minimum of 162 is required.

Both the City’s Plan Commission and City staff had previously recommended against Council’s approval of the project.

Addressing the Committee at the Oct. 26 meeting, Jeff Michael, Horizon Realty’s Chief Operating Officer, told aldermen the development was an effort to take the “existing outdated highly unremarkable retail center,” and build “a beautifully designed and luxurious residential building aimed at active senior living.”

He said the project was designed to provide, “luxury living options to empty nesters, and those residents who are seeking a higher-end living experience that’s not offered right now in Evanston.”

In addition to the tax revenue the project would generate, Mr. Michael noted that the project’s public benefits package includes “the largest cash contribution to the City’s coffers than any other proposed development in Evanston ever, $300,000; the second-largest contribution to the affordable housing fund, over $2 million; and the first-ever direct contribution to the City’s newly-created Reparations Fund.”

But aldermen, in their discussion, raised concerns about the incompatibility of the project on a block that is supposed to serve as a transition between downtown and neighborhoods to the east.

“We’ve had three years of looking at the various iterations of this development,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, about the site, which is located in the First Ward, “and there’s just nothing here that meets the standards and our zoning ordinance that we should apply.”

She also said it is also important that the City protect its transitional zones.

“The transition zone on the east side of Chicago Avenue has historically played an important role in this,” she said.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, contrasted the size and massing of the proposed project with  522 Church St., the 24-unit condominium building at the southeast corner of Chicago Avenue and Church Street, as well as the developer’s own Merion retirement community building, formerly the North Shore Hotel, “both of which fit in seamlessly into the architectural context and the transition zone.”

“When I look at this site, the massing of this building, it looks enormous, and you can see it achieved that goal by its floor ratio and increasing its unit count,” she said.

“I do think that this site could be developed in in so many better ways than it is,” she said. “They’re trying to put too much on too little.”

In remarks to the Committee, Mr. Michael said the development team was hoping to transform that end of Chicago Avenue,  much as had been done with the North Shore Hotel, in neglected condition when the group purchased it in 2012.

He maintained the group’s vision was to build a “beautifully designed and luxurious residential building aimed at active senior living,” in line with what others have done, including The Mather, located farther east.

He told aldermen the intended transition zone referred to is in reality in “name only.

“It’s a legal fiction, which we did not create. In reality there are other buildings east of our building destroying any sense of a real transition zone in this area,” he said.

He maintained the project is taking a chance on a location, “most likely not to curve back for another 24 to 36 months from now, if we’re lucky.”

During citizen comment earlier in the meeting, though, a number of speakers raised concerns about the project’s out-of-scale dimensions and also identified other problems as well – such as possible conflicts with the newly-installed bike lanes in the area. (Mr. Michael said the plan’s engineering design addresses that concern.)

William Brown, chairman of the Board of Trustees at the First United Methodist Church, at 516 Church St., estimated the built environment of the proposed project  “would be a mere 20 feet away from our church.”

“Frankly,” he told Committee members, “it’s disturbing that such a tall project would be considered for the east side of Chicago Avenue where the buildings step down as they move towards the lake. “Further, the new building would be directly across the street from the existing building,” (Park Evanston, 24 floors), in effect, “creating a canyon effect on Chicago Avenue,” he said.

Another speaker, Kiera Kelly, urged aldermen to vote against the high rise, which she said would replace “one of the few still successful stretches in downtown Evanston during this difficult time; displace or shutter one of the most well known restaurants in town, which is Found; eliminate six storefronts that are available to independent businesses and a pleasant outdoor dining area which has become more and more important.

“In my opinion,” she said, “the last thing we need to do is take away one draw for people to come to a struggling downtown and replace it with an unneeded half-black long luxury high rise.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.