Land swaps are not a common occurrence in Evanston, but developers are proposing one in the Emerson Street-Sherman Avenue area to move a major expansion project forward. 

Link 1.0 and Link 2.0 (right) in a rendering, looking southwest from the alley.

Focus Developers and CA Ventures, the developers, are proposing to construct a nine-story, 228-unit residential building just to the north and behind their existing Link apartment building on Emerson Street. 

The project site sits just west of Sherman Gardens, a long-established co-operative development on Sherman Avenue, between University Place and Emerson Street. 

The developers initially eyed building the expansion on a parcel that was for sale just south of their first Link building. That parcel contains a Byline Bank branch and housed a restaurant, Las Palmas, that was demolished about a year ago, said Justin Pelej, Executive Vice President of Focus. He was speaking at a virtual First Ward community meeting on Feb. 10. 

From impediment to benefit

The developers passed on that site, however, Pelej said, “partially because the site’s relatively small, but also in knowing Sherman Gardens Co-Op and their needs, we felt that a sort of vertical development would be challenging. They [Sherman Gardens] have a nice courtyard there, and certainly any height that would be built in that corner would impede on that courtyard as far as shadows and light and so on.”

As time went on, however, and the site was not placed under contract by anyone, he said, “We started thinking a little bit more about what could go on the site that would be somewhat benign and actually a benefit.” 

A new parking garage-parking lot in exchange 

From there grew a proposal: The developer would build a two-story, 96-space parking garage for Sherman Gardens residents on the Byline Bank/former Palmas Restaurant parcel. 

In exchange, the Sherman Gardens Co-Op would sell to the developers the surface parking lot its owners use north of their building. 

Proposed land swap includes new parking garage for Sherman Gardens in exchange for the cooperative’s surface parking north for Link 2.0 expansion.

The new garage would be about the height of the Byline Bank and not throw shadows on the Sherman Gardens courtyard, said Terry “Vic” Howell, Focus Development Manager.

“Effectively, the addition to The Link is going to truly be an addition connecting the two buildings, Link 1.0 and 2.0,” said Howell.

Residents of both buildings would be able to use the amenities of both buildings through access points created as part of the development, he said. 

Pelej, speaking of the community benefits of the project, said, “We do feel like this plan does support one of the most affordable housing options in downtown Evanston. 

“This, I think, is a creative solution to help Sherman Gardens; and certainly they are workforce housing at its root, so we feel good about that,” he said. 

“The second [benefit] is that we have committed to providing the 10% of affordable housing that’s required all on site. We won’t be buying out of it with the fee-in-lieu option,” he said.

Third, he pointed out, the lot behind Link 1.0, without the creative idea, would have remained a parking lot, “paying very little in taxes, because there’s really no ability to develop it. 

“So we think it’s a unique opportunity to harness the value for the community of that property,” he said. 

Community members were generally supportive of the proposal when First Ward Council member Clare Kelly opened the session for questions.

Parking garage key

Allen Feuerstein, President of the Sherman Gardens Association, said the plan’s proposed new parking structure “is extremely critical” to residents, “and anything else would be extremely detrimental to our buildings. So I’m really glad that this concept has been developed.” 

Tina Paden, a landlord and property owner in the area, asked the developers about their plans for the 19 affordable units to be included in the development. 

Howell said the affordable units would be split at approximately the same ratio among studios, one-bedroom units, two-bedroom units and three-bedroom units. 

Rents would run somewhere between $1,700 to $1,800 per month for studios at market rate, and roughly $979 for the affordable units of that size using HUD’s 60% of the Area Median Income standard. 

For one-bedroom units, the rent would step up to $2,300-$2,400 per month at market rate and approximately $1,050 at the affordable rate. For two-bedroom units, the monthly rent would be approximately $3,200 at market rate and roughly $1,258 at the affordable rate; and then about $4,100-$4,200 for three bedrooms, with an affordable rate of $1,454. 

Trisha Connolly, another speaker, observed that at the time the first Link building was built, “Evanston had several other large projects going on in this city. And that doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon,” she said. 

“So I would just say that I think it’s really important that the city be very sensitive to what’s going through the pipeline,” she said, and that “we have enough staff to actually be really monitoring it well” in case of safety issues.

Sherman Gardens resident Louise Keely asked the developers how far along they were in negotiating the land swap with the Co-Op’s trustees. 

Pelej said his team has a letter of intent with Sherman Gardens Co-Op, which “contemplates basically a land swap of the garage for the land.  

“We haven’t gotten into the specifics of dollar amounts,” he said, “because right now it’s a pretty simple transaction in the sense of it’s a 96-spot parking garage in exchange for an 83-spot parking lot.” 

Responding, Keely said of Sherman Gardens residents, “We’re not property developers and you guys are; and you do this every day. And it’s not a swap for 83 parking spots for a 96-spot parking garage,” she maintained. “You guys are going to be building a nine-story apartment building on that property, and so that property is very valuable to you.” 

She said one of her concerns “is that there are not property tax implications for us.” She said another is, “This is a fair-market-value exchange.” 

Council member Kelly, the moderator of the meeting, also joined in with some comments. 

“I think it’s really important that we do thoroughly assess the impact on our public services when we do have developments of hundreds and hundreds of units. And I think we need to do a better job of that,” she said. 

To developers of the planned garage she said, “If it’s going to increase the quality of life at Sherman Gardens, great.” 

With staff present at the meeting, she requested that “we do everything we can to sort of minimize any kind of warehouse look about the parking garage … to make it work with the architecture of the Sherman Gardens.”

The project is still early in the Planned Development process. The developers are expected to seek zoning relief for building height, in the number of parking spaces and in a number of other areas. 

During the meeting Howell said the developers would like to start construction on the new building in the first quarter of 2023 and complete work with a 16-to-20-month construction schedule.  

He said completion would be sometime in the summer or early fall of 2024.  

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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