Rendering of The Emerson from City of Evanston materials provided by the Housing Authority of Cook County

The Planning and Development Committee of the Evanston City Council will review the latest version of a proposed high rise housing project at 1900 Sherman Avenue at 5 p.m. on Nov. 9. The proposed project sits in the City’s First Ward, on the north edge of downtown.

The proposed project, The Emerson, will be on the same lot as, and just south of, the existing Jane Perlman building, an 11-story, 100-unit building, owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC). The Perlman building, which was approved as a planned development in 1976, provides affordable apartments for senior citizens and those with disabilities.

After proposing smaller projects previously, the HACC now proposes a 16-story, 168-unit mixed income project with 30% affordable units in the age-restricted building – 80% of heads of households must be 55 years or older.

The proposal seeks a zoning map change, from the residential R6 to the commercial C1A, and needs Special Use and Planned Development approvals.

The zoning change to a commercial district is necessary, because a planned development in a residential district requires at least a 12-foot separation between buildings, which is not possible on this site. Without the map amendment, no planned development can be constructed on the parcel. This project, however, will not have commercial uses, because they are not permitted in HACC buildings.

At its Oct. 14 meeting, the Plan Commission recommended approval of the map amendment, but members were tied on recommending approval of the Planned Development and Special Use. On tie votes, a project is automatically sent on to the Council.

In July 2018, HACC had proposed an 11-story building with 80 units. At that time Richard Monocchio, HACC Executive Director, said these units would be “affordable to people who feel they are being ‘priced out’ of Evanston but want to stay here.”

The project’s support has come largely from advocates for more affordable and mixed-income housing in Evanston.  Other supporters say they admire the architectural quality of the design. Opposition to the project relates primarily to its scale, given its proximity to a residential neighborhood.

Sue Loellbach, Bonnie Wilson and several other members of the group Joining Forces for Affordable Housing have expressed their strong support for the project and its inclusion of affordable housing. 

Joining Forces posted this on its website about The Emerson: “Original objections to this building related to its size and height. Interestingly, newer objections have to do with the number of affordable units. We are happy to say that people are demanding more! However, we also know how difficult it is to create affordable housing and how rare an opportunity The Emerson presents. By providing 51 units of housing at lower than market pricing, The Emerson will increase the affordable housing in Evanston more than anything we can remember.”

Among the opponents are Cecile McHugh and Claire Waistell, both of whom are First Ward residents. Their concerns are the scale and the negative impact of the height of the residential neighborhood to the north, the large number of market rate units (70% of the 168 units), the need for rezoning, the zoning variations needed and what they consider inadequate public benefits. They see the market rate housing as age-restricted “luxury units,” of which they think Evanston already has a sufficient supply.

Ms. McHugh contends that the City’s focus on affordable housing is misguided in this case.  She says that the proposed building is of questionable benefit to the community and may be approved solely because of the affordable housing component.

“It seems to us to be a bait-and-switch, having gone from a proposed eight-story “addition” to the Perlman with a majority of affordable units for seniors completely owned by the county to a proposed 16-story free-standing building with majority seniors and majority luxury units with no more affordable units than is required,” she told the RoundTable.

Ms. Waistell says she is concerned that there have been significant changes since an 11-story project (referred to then as the Perlman “Expansion”) was presented at the April, 2019 City Council Special Session on Affordable Housing. 

She notes that the requested zoning change would bring more commercial zoning into a two-to-four-story residential neighborhood. The Perlman parcel is zoned R6 now and the rest of the block is R5.  In addition she points to the “height spike” the building, which is outside the North Downtown Evanston boundaries, would create, instead of serving as a transition to the residential neighborhood.  She says she agrees with findings at the Design and Project Review (DAPR) Committee meeting that “the bulk and scale of the proposed building is out of context with the existing building on the site and the character of the surrounding development.”

Kiera Kelly, who also opposes the project, points to studies that question whether this is the best way to help the affordability crisis, in that this type of development results in increased land values.

Similar concerns about the height, bulk and scale of the project are mentioned in staff comments on the standards  considered during review of the project. There are three such standards: 

  • ·       Standards for the Map Amendment: “…the scale and mass of the proposed building may not be compatible with the character of existing development in the immediate vicinity.”
  • ·        Special Use Standards: “…the height, mass, and scale of the proposed development may not be compatible with the immediately adjacent structures.”
  • ·        Standards and Guidelines for Planned Development: “…the height, bulk and scale of the proposed project is significantly greater than that of buildings in the immediate vicinity.”

When the adjacent building at 811 Emerson (The Link) was proposed, many similar concerns were raised. That building was reduced in height to match the Perlman height before gaining approval.

At the Oct. 14 Plan Commission meeting, held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a proposal to amend the application with a shorter building found some support, especially in regard to the Planned Development condition about the project’s “height, bulk and scale” not being compatible with surrounding development. 

HCAA representatives have maintained that the building’s height and its 168 units are crucial for the project’s financing. 

At the Plan Commission meeting, Mr. Monocchio noted that the project would be built “with zero development subsidies” and would be located on property already owned by HCAA.

“The whole reason we’re putting market-rate units here is so we can bring 51 affordable units. That’s the only way to do it,” he said. “I would argue that this is a great use of taxpayer dollars, because 51 affordable units are provided into an area that really needs it. … There’s nowhere near enough tax credits or other money to build affordable housing.”

Commissioner George Halik said at that meeting he would still like to see a compromise between the height and the number of “affordable units … however that happens that would be a nice outcome.”  Staff recommended, though, that the proposal go to the Council as it was.

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"...