It will be a while before stakeholders in a collaboration between Mt. Pisgah Ministry, 1815 Church St., and Housing Opportunity Development Corporation – and potential Fifth Ward neighbors – learn whether the project will get a recommendation from the Evanston Land Use Commission. 

Mt. Pisgah plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.
Architectural drawing of proposed Mt. Pisgah development

After two-and-a-half hours of testimony about the project at their Feb. 8 meeting, commissioners voted to continue the matter at their Feb. 22 meeting. It was the second continuance for the proposal, which first came before the commission Jan. 6.

The project consists of two interconnected proposals, each undergoing its own separate development process. Mt. Pisgah plans to erect a new two-story building, while Skokie-based Housing Opportunity Development Corporation (HODC) would mount an adjoining 44-unit, five-story affordable housing project.

The City of Evanston owns 1805 Church St. and 1708-10 Darrow Ave. HODC would acquire that land, then exchange those plots for the land Mt. Pisgah owns. Mt. Pisgah’s new building would feature a 200-person worship space, a fellowship space and meeting and conference facilities. The project would also house about 3,000- square feet of retail space. The proposal would require some 16 variances from the city.

The two petitioners would obtain that long-vacant lot adjacent to Mt. Pisgah from the city. Logistical considerations dictate that the lots would be swapped: The new church would be located where the vacant lot is now, while the apartment building would be where the church now stands.

“We want to continue the work that we have been doing, just in a new facility,” said Pastor Cliff Wilson of Mt. Pisgah.

Concerns drove the continuance

Besides developing the apartment complex, HODC would manage the site, which would be composed of a mixture of one-, two-, and three-bedroom affordable units.

The Jan. 6 continuance came at the request of Erin Jackson, a principal at a neighboring health care law firm at 1817 Church St., who was concerned about disruptions from construction at the site and potential flooding issues among other issues. Jackson agreed to meet with Wilson and HODC Executive Director Richard Koenig as well as Council Member Bobby Burns (5th Ward).

Mt. Pisgah plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.
Architectural drawing of proposed Mt. Pisgah development

But Jackson said Feb. 8 that she was not reassured by the meeting, adding that she had expected there to be a public gathering to deliberate the matter. 

“We were playing catchup,” Jackson said. “…It just wasn’t oriented the way I had anticipated.”

Jackson’s counsel, Haley Guion, prepared a 70-page memo listing objections to the proposal as well as a number of questions to ask Koenig and Wilson during the Feb. 8 meeting.

Board Chair Matt Rodgers admitted that he had insufficient time to read that memo, since it had only been delivered to the commission late that morning. 

A number of advocates and residents spoke on behalf of the project, among them Sue Loellbach, manager of advocacy for Connections for the Homeless.

She argued that to achieve more affordable housing, stakeholders had to use “every tool in their belt,” and that included mounting projects such as the Darrow Street redevelopment. 

“We believe that this development … will have positive impact,” added Loellbach.

Evanston needs more affordable housing

Another resident, Willie Shaw, spoke at length about the need for affordable housing, noting that people are “leaving [Evanston] in droves because of rising costs.” Project supporter John Fuller urged the commission not to “kick the can down the road” and let the community do something with the vacant lot.

Several neighborhood residents, however, questioned why the Fifth Ward is the location of so many apartment-style affordable housing units. Many audience members argued that money would be better spent helping people in the ward own homes and attracting businesses such as banks to help residents leverage their own stakes in the neighborhood.    

“It is cruel to cluster so much poverty in one spot,” said building owner Radica Sutz, who called the proposal a “trauma” for the neighborhood.

Todd Smith, who also owns a rental property, asked, “We support affordable housing – but why does all affordable housing have to be in the Fifth Ward?” He said the community needs to put its resources towards scattered-site housing instead. 

Tina Payton, another property owner, said, “I’m not here against affordable housing …but this project and this developer are outrageous and should be denied.”

As the meeting lurched towards 11 p.m., the commission had not yet begun its deliberations. Though Koenig and Wilson had answered many of Guion’s questions, she expressed concern that they had not been able to do so thoroughly (Koenig and Wilson had not seen the questions prior to the meeting). Additionally, HODC’s architectural renderings in their presentation did not match those that had been given to the commission.

The commissioners voted for the continuance to ensure that HODC’s renderings would be up to date and allow them to go over Guion’s submission. The only additional testimony Feb. 22 will concern the latest changes to the renderings. 

Rodgers noted that he will not be at the Feb. 22 meeting, and George Halik, another commissioner, said he will recuse himself from voting on the proposal because of a personal conflict-of-interest.

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  1. Please have a reporter from the Roundtable attend a Community Alliance
    Meeting Friday February 17, 2023 to discuss with Fifth ward Alderman Burns
    the concerns of the stakeholders. Bethel AME Church, 1744 Darrow Ave.,
    Evanston, IL 60201, 7:30 PM

  2. Interested parties can watch the meeting recorded on YouTube . I have never seen a group of more impassioned public commentators.
    See for yourself if you can’t attend public meetings as important as these are.