A developer is making a second try on a proposal to build a mixed-use high-rise residential building at 1621-31 Chicago Ave., across from the Whole Foods store on Church Street. He has included an increased number of affordable units as one of the project’s major benefits.
Developer Jeffrey Michael, Chief Operating Officer of the Horizon Realty Group, is proposing to build The Legacy, an 18-story 180-unit building just north of the firm’s The Merion retirement community.
The proposed development site currently includes a half dozen storefront businesses as well as the popular restaurant Found. At the meeting, Michael said the developers are in talks with some of the storefront spaces about including them in the new project.
The same group’s nearly three-year effort to gain approval for a 17-story high-rise building at the site failed to advance out of a Council committee in October 2020, running into strong criticism of its mass and height.
At a virtual First Ward meeting on Feb. 3, Michael said the proposed 18-story building would add more people to the downtown area where the population had been stagnant “to ensure that the restaurants that we love and the small businesses we support will remain, and that the new ones will fill our vacant storefronts.
“The simple fact is Evanston needs more residents to support the business district,” he said, “and that’s what The Legacy is going to bring – more than 300 new residents living in the heart of Evanston’s business and shopping district , supporting the local economy every day.”
As with the previous proposal, a number of speakers raised concerns about the incompatibility of the project with projects to the east, including First United Methodist Church, which sits across an alley from the proposed building.
Grace Imathiu, Senior Pastor of First United Methodist, at 512 Church St., expressed concern that the church’s sacred space, which includes a courtyard and a memorial garden, will “be violated by that large building. “There is no way, no way we can escape it,” she said. “The building is just too tall. It’s beautiful. But it is out of place.”
Another member of the church community, William Brown, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at First United Methodist, maintained the proposed 18-story building “is completely overbearing on the adjacent historic built environment. It would be a mere 20 feet away from the church across what will be a congested alley. Frankly, it’s disturbing such a project would be considered for the east side of Chicago Avenue, where the buildings step down as they move towards the lake,” he said.
Bob Froetscher, another speaker, said before buying his condominium, which is located near the proposed development, “I checked and researched and understood the zoning requirements of this area,” he said. “This building violates those zoning requirements.”
He said he also checked the city’s 2009 Consolidated Plan, a document that the city drew up after researching best practices across cities in the U.S.
“And the conclusion was that [this] block should have buildings no taller than six to 10 stories,” he said. “If you look at the buildings, including The Merion, none of them are more than six to 10 stories,” he said.
“There’s a reason for that. It [the area] is not just a business district, it’s a residential district. It is a community,” he said.
In his response, Michael noted that the developers necessarily have “to build a structure with enough units to have impact on the local economy and advance Evanston’s affordable housing goals.”
He said the project will have significant economic impact, generating $1.5 million in overall new revenue, compared to the $100,000 in property tax revenue that currently comes from the property.
He said the project would also add five more units of affordable housing as a public benefit, for a total of 18 units on site. That is a change from the group’s earlier proposal, where Horizon paid into an affordable housing fund to support affordable housing off site.
Jonathan Perman, a consultant to Horizon and former Executive Director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, said the additional units will increase the number of affordable units in downtown Evanston by about 20%.
“This will be the largest commitment ever of affordable housing in a market rate project in downtown Evanston,” he said.
Some members of the affordable housing community differed over the proposal’s benefit.
Local activist Darlene Cannon, a Second Ward resident, acknowledged that some “affordable housing cheerleaders might offer commendations” over the move.
“But the reality is that we have hundreds of homeless families in [School] District 65. We have families that need two, three, and even four bedrooms, and I can’t get up and cheer, because you’re going to give us one bedroom – that’s not going to give us what we need “ she said.
Sue Loellbach, Advocacy Manager for Connections for the Homeless, said, however, that she thought the affordable housing proposal for the building “looks pretty strong.”
As the proposal evolves, she said, “I would love to see the affordability of those affordable units be as deep as possible. We’d really love to see some 50% [of market rates] units there. But you know, the deeper you can make the affordability, the better.”
In response to a question, Michael said market rate rents in the new building are projected to be anywhere from $1,500 to $1,700 a month for a studio apartment, $1,900 to about $2,100 a month for a one-bedroom unit, and about $2,500 to $2,900 a month for a two-bedroom unit.
At the meeting, Tina Paden, a downtown building owner, maintained the city does not need more housing to fill up its stores.
“We already have 5 billion luxury apartments,” she said. “We need stores, not apartments,” she maintained.
“What’s happening now is we have all these apartment buildings. And then people are taking their money to Skokie and Lincolnwood, because we don’t have any stores.”
The project is still at an early stage. The developers must file an application for a planned development, which would kick off the public hearing process through various committees.
Final approval rests with the City Council.