Proposed Kensington School at 2715 Hurd Ave. (Rendering from City of Evanston materials)

The April 14 meeting of the City’s Plan Commission will continue its hearing on the planned development at 2715 Hurd Ave. – a two-story Kensington daycare center and preschool with an outdoor play area.

An unused building of Second Church of Christ, Scientist, sits on the property, and Kensington has offered the $1.8 million asking price.

The Design and Project Review Committee, composed of City staff, has given a positive recommendation to the project, with several conditions, most relating to traffic, parking, light-levels, and bird-friendly measures.

In addition to fulfilling the recommendations of the DAPR Committee, Kensington lists as proposed public benefits the quality day-care the school will offer, and deconstruction rather than demolition of the building. Deconstruction involves salvaging as much material as possible for re-use, so less goes into a landfill than if the building were simply razed. Other public benefits listed are upgrades to street-lighting, a donation to the West Central Street Special Service Area, a contribution to the City’s affordable housing fund, and consideration of a local employment program with career paths for low-income and minority residents.

The area around the church would fit a need for Kensington, said Kensington representative Charles Marlas, because it would be in a part of Evanston where there are young children.

While the proposal has met with staff approval at that level, many neighbors oppose the development.

“The neighbors are very organized in opposition,” said Alderman Thomas Suffredin, in whose Sixth Ward the property lies.

Between zoning issues and questioning the school’s place in Evanston, neighbors of the Sixth Ward are opposing Kensington’s purchase of the property for its proposed day-care center and preschool. Tuition per child would be $25,000 a year, and the school would be across from Willard Elementary School.

Mr. Marlas’ proposal for Kensington to use an alley for the Kensington drop-off is one the residents oppose because of concerns for child safety. In an earlier letter to the Plan Commission members, residents noted that the area has been designated a “Safe School Route,” which “ensures that students and their caregivers have a safe place to walk to and from school.”

With the streets and alleyways potentially becoming a hazard for children and Kensington using it for the school, that also creates a situation “denying residents the right to use that which they themselves paid for,” per the Plan Commission letter.

“There’s nothing that’s invalid about being concerned about traffic, parking and the compatibility of Kensington with Willard and all those things,” Ald. Suffredin told the RoundTable.

As a way to communicate their concerns about the sale, some residents have corresponded with the Second Church of Christ, Scientists’ legal team. The legal team responded with a brief with the intent “to raise awareness of the heightened protections for religious institutions and private schools under Federal and Illinois law as the Evanston zoning authorities consider the Kensington School’s special use application.”

According to a section of the brief, The Evanston Zoning Code’s Unequal Treatment of Private Schools, Kensington could receive zoning as a special use under “Educational institution – Private.” The church maintains that the same traffic, parking, and health concerns would exist whether the school was public or private. The church’s lawyers claim there would be unequal treatment by the City if that were the consideration. 

Some residents who chose to raise their children in Evanston because of the beauty of the community’s diversity and efforts towards equity strongly oppose the expensive for-profit daycare and preschool.

Jeffrey Jamison is a lawyer and an Evanston resident. He and his wife sent their children to Willard School. In a rebuttal letter sent to Ald. Suffredin, Mr. Jamison stated why having a greater understanding of the church’s brief was important.

“As well to make sure that the church’s not-so-thinly veiled threat of litigation did not impact any decisions regarding Kensington’s Special Use Permit application,” he said.

While church officials say they recognize the necessity of going through the City process to apply for a special use, they also say they feel it is unnecessary because with the sale, the property would go from one religious entity to another. Mr. Jamison says, however, he believes the City’s process is valid. 

Residents are also concerned about Kensington School’s lack of diversity and awareness of the Evanston community.

A resident asked Mr. Marlas about whether there would be tuition subsidies, because the annual tuition is $25,000. Mr. Marlas said, “This is not a public service. We have to do our best to provide a level of care and services to those who can afford it.”

“This is where it kills me,” said neighbor Rick Acevas. “We [the Evanston community] preached equity, equity this equity that. … But now you’re going to let a for-profit school come and build here.”

Mr. Acevas, an educator, is also a Willard parent. He says he takes pride in raising his children in a place like Evanston where the City is trying to do right by all its residents. However, he believes that having a for-profit preschool in Evanston is an oxymoron for what the people of Evanston believe.

Other residents appear to agree. One is former Northwestern University Professor Steven Rogers, whose inquiries related to how the business would fit in to the community – whether Mr. Marlas hired Black employees, Black suppliers or if he had spoken to Black consultants to prepare him to talk to residents of Evanston about his school. For a majority of the answers, Mr. Marlas said, “No.” There was also a comment about whether Kensington would donate $10,000 to Evanston’s diversity funds. 

“I said to him, how insulting you’re clueless about the realities of Evanston and how diversity is important to us specifically, the inclusion of Black folks, and your pittance of $10,000 is nothing but an insult,” Prof. Rogers said.

The April 14 Plan Commission meeting, to be held virtually, begins at 6 p.m., with the hearing on the Kensington proposal tentatively scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. City Council has the ultimate authority to grant the special use.