The Evanston Plan Commission on July 14 returned an omnibus proposal allowing so-called live-work units in the C2 zoning district so City Staff could clarify its own suggestions for amending the relevant ordinances. 

The initial portion of the proposal came from local real estate developer Andrew Spatz, who has already developed similar live-work spaces in the City. Mr. Spatz is requesting the zoning change to allow for a three-unit town home development at 1310 Hartrey Avenue. 

City staff attached additional language to Mr. Spatz’s proposal, according to officials, since a number of live-work units already exist in the City and are only very loosely regulated. City staff defines live-work units as “a type of mixed-use development wherein a business owner or one or more of the employees of that business may also live on the same premises as the business itself.” 

Current regulations state that live-work units can only take place in residential zoning districts, and cannot take up more than 25% of the dwelling unit. Furthermore, no more than two non-residents of that unit may be employed by the business.  

“Generally, there are many live-work units that we are aware of anecdotally in the City,” said City staff Planner Katie Ashbaugh.

Mr. Spatz suggested that such units might be an antidote to economic hardships Evanston is facing following in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that he has received requests for live-work units but lacks the ability to facilitate many more, given current guidelines, adding, “This is my vision of what I think the City needs so we can move forward.”

The City’s proposed amendments would more specifically regulate what each living space should consist of and who exactly could live there. Business owners who leased the space to employees, for example, would then be considered landlords in the City’s eyes. Their property would therefore be subject to the same registration and inspection requirements as rental properties. The City proposal would specifically allow for live-work spaces in all non-residential and non-university districts. 

At times, the City’s portions of the proposal seemed at odds with Mr. Spatz’s. Part of the proposed City amendment, for example, indicated that business fronts with work-dwell units must face the street; Mr. Spatz’s proposal, in contrast, would have only one of the three units facing the street. City Neighborhood & Land Use Planner Meagan Jones emphasized that the July 14 discussion was about actual changes to the text of the ordinance, not the substance of Mr. Spatz’s plans. 

Commissioner George Halik was first to comment on the discrepancy, noting that the first floor of Mr. Spatz’s proposed units seemed to be more like living rooms than places of business. Mr. Spatz explained that his units were primarily intended for persons with a home business – he suggested a graphic design firm for an example – from which employees could come and go. His proposed units, he added, would have a “homey feel” that employees would feel comfortable in.

Other commissioners expressed concern that the amendments would ultimately give way to sweatshop-type situations, wherein business owners might use the space for dormitory-style accommodations and potentially offer a place to sleep as part of their compensation in lieu of wages. Commissioner John Hewko asked staff to consider the implications if an owner did not charge an employee who is also a tenant rent. Commissioner Matt Rodgers additionally warned against people dedicating only a tiny portion of their living space to a business.

Mr. Spatz at times suggested that the meeting had crept towards foreseeing the worst-case scenarios from the City’s own ordinance amendments rather than discussing the merits of his own part of the proposal. He added that he had never seen the potential abuses that several commissioners were accounting for. Though Mr. Spatz praised the “hard work” City staff had put into their proposal, he said he had only seen their portion of it the day before. 

Commissioner Rodgers nevertheless said the Commission had a responsibility to make sure that the ordinances would protect the integrity of the zoning, and these questions and discussions ensured that. Commissioners also took issue with the City proposal’s seeming to allow work-dwell spaces in areas zoned as open space districts; they noted that those districts were mainly park spaces.

The Commission ultimately voted unanimously to send the joint proposal back to City staff to further iron out its logistics, a resolution that, for his part, Mr. Spatz made a “thumbs-up” gesture to support. The changes are currently scheduled for discussion at the Plan Commission’s July 28 meeting.