The offer of a gift from a developer whose proposal was ultimately rejected by City Council generated a discussion about the reach of public benefits in any given development.
At the Oct. 23 meeting of the City’s Reparations Subcommittee, Jonathan Perman presented an offer of a $100,000 from Horizon Realty Group as part of the public benefits the developer would offer to the community.
Horizon sought allowances from the City for its proposed 17-story, 215-unit senior living complex at1621-31 Chicago Ave., in return for which it would give the City $300,000 in public benefits. One-third of that, or $100,000, would be earmarked for the City’s Reparations Fund.
Mr. Perman is known to many Evanstonians because of his 18-year tenure as executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce. Now retired, he heads the Perman Group consultants.
A few days later, at the Oct. 26 meeting of the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee, two aldermen were was quick to reject concerns raised in the community that the offer to the Reparation Subcommittee looked like a bribe.
Alderman Judy Fiske, in whose First Ward the proposed development would have been built, said, “I think we all need to understand the optics of that look very bad. I mean, outside of this development, I think anyone would welcome donations to the Reparations [Fund]. … Remember, there’s a community out here who is observing everything that we do, and it just looks bad.”
Ald. Fiske said she had known Mr. Perman for a long time, “and I think that he understands that maybe this was not the right approach to take. And I’m sorry, that for whatever reason, they decided to do that. … It puts the Council in a very difficult place of looking like it’s odd that there are different standards.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, who is also a member of the Reparations Subcommittee, said that even though some residents had suggested the offer was a “pay to play,” she had not considered that. “When I first heard about the reparations commitment from the developers, I never, I never put those two items together.
“I think the Reparations [Sub]committee was thrilled to hear that somebody wanted to make a commitment, a financial commitment to the reparations project. We are, you know, we are way beyond being paid-to- play. And it really was quite insulting. And I don’t believe, having known Jonathan Perman for way over 20 years, that he was he was bribing us in any way, shape, or form.”
Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, who chairs the Reparations Subcommittee, said, “One thing we do know is that, although we have an incredible commitment of $10 million, $10 million is not enough to [address] the disparities and deal with the housing disparities and racial wealth divide and so on, that we have here in the City. So I took it as a very thoughtful way to show that Mr. Perman was paying attention to the things that we say we value here in Evanston, which includes our disparities. So thank you to Mr. Perman, for showing up.
“I’m absolutely heartbroken that there is a consensus in the community that we would make a decision on such a zoning decision or development based on offer of support for anything. And so that’s unfortunate. I think that the argument against it or the argument of opposition is strong. … [The Reparations Subcommittee] was the appropriate place for him to make a recommendation on ways that we might further fund reparations. So with that said … thank you to the developers and the owners for thinking about the things that we value here in Evanston.”
Ald. Rue Simmons said she had difficulty with the notion that the Reparations Subcommittee was an appropriate place for a discussion of public benefits. She also said she thought public benefits provided by a developer should be allowed to extend beyond the immediate area impacted by the development.
Deputy City Attorney Nicholas Cummings, referring to a memorandum written by Michelle Masoncup, the previous Corporation Counsel, said there is no definitive list of what is an appropriate public benefit. Examples of public benefits, he said, are dedications of streets, sidewalks and public ways impact fees, payments into a public fund, public art, landscaping, open space, infrastructure improvements and electric-vehicle charging [stations]. He added such benefits do not seem to be restricted to the immediate area of the development but there must be a nexus between the impact of the development and the public benefit.
Mr. Cummings said he understood that Horizon’s contribution would have been to a public fund and the Reparations Fund “is directed at specific residents in the city of Evanston and some race-based program. There doesn’t seem to be that nexus, based upon the case law, that that public benefit is generally benefiting the public. … So, there has to be proportionality between the developers’ projected impact and what we are getting back. And it can’t be rough; it actually has to be a little more exact. So it would really depend upon the impact that this particular development had on the Evanston community.”
Ald. Rue Simmons said she would argue that the development would have had an impact on the City because all the units would have been market-rate, and there is a dearth of affordable housing here. “And that’s largely the goals of reparation: We have a declining Black population, and we have an entire City that’s devastated by COVID.”
Mr. Cummings said he would have to do additional research to see whether a donation of the type offered by Horizon “fits within the rubric of what we’ve already researched for Reparations – which means that in order to have this race based program, it has to be narrowly tailored, in order for it to withstand any sort of challenge.” He also said public benefits are typically required by the City rather than offered by the developer.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, asked whether it had been determined that the public benefit offer to contribute to the reparation fund is not appropriate because it is racially restricted.
Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne, chairing the Planning and Development Committee meeting, said, “If we’re going to call it a public benefit, I want to make sure that our legal department has properly researched it and determined that we can call it that.”
She said she would like to see how the City Council could codify a requirement that all new development would contribute a specific amount “or follow a formula to [contribute to] our Reparations Fund. And then by codifying it, then then we won’t get this question. And we also won’t put it up to the highest bidder and cause this consternation in the community.”
Ald. Rainey said she did not feel the City should force anyone to make a contribution to the Reparations Fund but that the City should consider the fund a public fund, “because we are putting public dollars into that fund. I think it’s a public fund.”
Ald. Wynne said, “I think that this is clearly a topic that we need to have more information and have a better grip.”
While discussion on this topic is expected to continue, no time or place has been set.