Some of the challenges of providing 30 apartments in a historic building that is a tight fit on its lot were clear at a recent Fourth Ward discussion of the proposed Masonic Temple project.
The adaptive-reuse project was introduced to 25 interested neighbors Thursday, Nov. 3, at a meeting organized by Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward.
Jodi Wickersheimer, Chief Development Officer of the YMCA, welcomed the neighbors to the Y’s Chinook Lounge for the event. She pointed out that a similar neighborhood meeting had recently been held there before the City Council granted approval for the YMCA’s proposed Men’s Residence renovation. That renovation, part of a $12.5 million project, is in the “campaign phase” now, she said.
Nieuwsma introduced Adam Breux and Mike Karkowski, architects with Myefski Architects, and Gary Stoltz, principal of the owner and developer RC Lodge. Stoltz described his company as an “an adaptive-reuse developer.”
Breux told the audience that the Masonic Temple was built in 1926 and is a listed Evanston landmark, eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Evanston Preservation Commission approved the project at its Oct. 11 meeting.
Breux provided a Power Point overview of the project, starting with a view of the existing Masonic Temple lobby which, he said, will be preserved in the same location.
He also showed an interior view of a typical loft-style apartment. The majority of the 30 proposed apartments are either loft-style units or two-story units. The tall ceilings in the Masonic Temple, and the exterior window sizes and locations, were factors in the apartment layouts.
The proposed redevelopment project conforms with its R6 zone location, but it requires three major zoning variations.
The developers are asking for a major variation to provide 10 more apartments than the 14 that the R6 zone and the lot size would permit.
In addition, by designating three of those 24 apartments as “affordable,” under the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance they are allowed what amounts to a bonus of two additional units per each affordable unit, or six in all. So they plan to have a total of 30 apartments.
The developers stressed that the downtown Evanston market is strong for apartments of these sizes (averaging 750 square feet) and for the likely rents (about $2,100 for a one-bedroom apartment ). More than half of the units would be one-bedroom apartments.
The second major variation request, for leased off-site parking, prompted the most discussion at the meeting.
The parking variation requested is for the number and location of the 19 required parking spaces. The proposal calls for 10 spaces to be leased at the Holiday Inn parking garage, about 1,000 feet east of the site.
Stoltz said providing parking in the basement of the Masonic Temple is not technically feasible, due to the length of ramp that would be required. The variance application states that “parking within [the building’s] envelope would involve alterations to the facade and structure that are technically unfeasible – requiring new doors, removal of masonry walls, and replacement of structural system.”
The Masonic Temple is within the Central Evanston Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zone. The variance application notes the site is a five to 10 minute walk to the CTA Purple Line and Metra stations, as well as to multiple bus stops, grocery stores and a Divvy bike station. “It is expected that the units and amenities being proposed are more likely to attract potential residents who are willing and able to meet their needs without a car,” the application notes. The city staff report on the project supports this reasoning.
There was considerable discussion about the challenges of a transit-oriented development in proximity to a residential neighborhood. Many neighbors expressed concern about Masonic Temple renters parking in the residential neighborhood south of Lake Street. Neighbors said some renters in the new Albion building at Sherman Avenue and Lake Street are parking in the neighborhood rather than paying for the parking provided in that building. The neighbors said they think this is common for rental buildings.
Residents of the adjoining residential neighborhoods qualify for F parking zone permits. Nieuwswa broached the idea of expanding the F parking zone south of Lake Street so that Masonic Temple residents could park in the neighborhood, but there was general opposition to this idea among the neighbors.
According to the city’s staff report, “The Parking Services Division of the Administrative Services Department has requested a condition that the units in the building not be eligible for on-street residential parking permits.”
One neighbor suggested that the city should study the TOD and see how many cars are attached to an address, and whether Northwestern University students are registering their vehicles and paying the wheel tax. Another neighbor said fewer workers are commuting downtown after the pandemic than when the TOD assumptions were made. But several other neighbors were sympathetic to the TOD concept and to the project’s goals in general.
Trash enclosure variance
The third major variation request, to allow for a new trash enclosure on the alley (it will not be setback from the alley) was well received. The developer said this is a better use of that area than the current situation with the condensing units and a raised bulkhead in the rear. The condensing units will be largely out of sight on the roof in the proposed project.
Nieuwswa said that he supports the project “conceptually,” but wanted to “acknowledge the parking concern.” He said that this proposed use would probably have the “most minimal impact” compared with other possible uses. In particular, using the building as an event space could impose a greater parking burden on the neighborhood, he said.
Nieuwswa said the project would be an all-electric building and comply with the city’s Green Building Ordinance.
Stoltz said the developer is still discussing landscaping plans with city staff, including landscape screening for the basement units that face Lake Street. The windows of those units are almost entirely below ground level. The developers have been revising the design for a wheelchair lift in the front of the building to provide the screening and symmetry that the Preservation Commission sought at its Oct. 11 meeting.
Since the meeting, the City’s Design and Project Review Committee has issued a staff report on the project. The report recommends granting all three major variation requests. The project is scheduled to be reviewed and voted on at the Wednesday, Nov. 9, meeting of the Land Use Commission.
If it is approved by the commission it will go to the City Council for final approval. The application can be found here, starting on page 27, with a zoning analysis at page 90.
Nieuwswa ended the Nov. 3 meeting on a positive note by announcing that a division of Underwriters Laboratories will lease space at the 1603 Orrington Ave. building, bringing 200 new employees to downtown Evanston.