After three hearings, the city’s Land Use Commission on Wednesday, Feb. 22, finally issued decisions on the two projects that make up the ambitious Darrow Street redevelopment project proposed by Mt. Pisgah Ministry and Skokie-based Housing Opportunity Development Corporation (HODC). 

Mt. Pisgah plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.
Mt. Pisgah’s plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.

Commissioners narrowly voted 4-3 to recommend the affordable housing aspect of the project to the city council, but rejected by a 5-3 vote Mt. Pisgah’s plan for its new church. (Commissioner George Halik had a conflict of interest with the HODC portion of the project and abstained from that vote.)

The two project are closely intertwined and entail a number of logistical hurdles. Mt. Pisgah wants to erect a new larger building, while HODC would mount an adjoining 44-unit, five-story affordable housing project next door.

The City of Evanston owns 1805 Church St. and 1708-10 Darrow Ave. HODC would acquire that land from the city, then those plots would be exchanged for the plots Mt. Pisgah now occupies. The proposals together require some 16 city variances and combining five parcels of land into two new ones. 

A rejection by the commission won’t automatically disqualify the proposals when they come before the council, but its members generally take the commissioners’ recommendation seriously.

Vocal opposition

Numerous Fifth Ward neighbors have been vocal in their opposition to the proposals, saying the project would mean additional parking, traffic and safety concerns.

People have also said that HODC’s model of affordable housing – in this case, below market-rate one-, two- and three-bedroom rental units – are poor substitutes for neighborhood reinvestment that encourages home ownership and community pride.

Mt. Pisgah plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.
Mt. Pisgah’s plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.

Local resident Roberta Hudson said, “We are living with the results of developers’ projects that have been put in our neighborhood,” adding that the community “has not benefited” from those projects. Local resident Carlis Sutton called HODC’s plans “a Trojan horse” that would ultimately prove detrimental to the neighborhood. 

Local housing advocates have been supportive of the plan and its potential for 44 new affordable units. Sue Loellbach, manager of advocacy at Connections for the Homeless, told the commissioners, “We need all the solutions. … We urge you to really consider that, in light of the variances you are considering.”

Residents have complained that affordable housing is needed across all of Evanston, and bemoaned the concentration of affordable housing in the Fifth Ward.

But Interim Community Development Director Sarah Flax said that developments have gone up or been proposed where there is vacant land, and noted other recent projects outside the Fifth Ward, including the Ann Rainey Apartments on Howard Street.

Commissioners weigh in

Commissioner Jeanne Lindwall said that she appreciated the new units and that the project would mean a lot that’s stood vacant for decades would be occupied. Fellow commissioners Kristine Westerberg and Kiril Mirintchev criticized the scale of the apartment complex, with Mirintchev suggesting the units themselves would likely be too small for residents’ comfort. 

Commissioner Myrna Arevalo, who lives in the Fifth Ward, took issue with those who said affordable rentals like HODC’s weren’t needed there: “…(T)here is a big need for affordable housing in the Fifth Ward. … I understand that people don’t like change. I do agree with this project and I will be voting for it as a resident of the Fifth Ward.”

Mt. Pisgah plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.
Mt. Pisgah’s plans for Fifth Ward church and affordable housing. Architectural drawings.

After the HODC vote, and discussion moved to Mt. Pisgah’s potential new building, a few commissioners questioned the need for a building that size at that location.

“It is wonderful to have a vision and to want to expand,” said Westerberg. … [But] it isn’t scaled to the site.”

Parking was another hurdle. Halik questioned the wisdom of Mt. Pisgah’s proposed 21 parking spaces – some of which would need to be borrowed from ETHS – since the church hoped to welcome about 200 worshippers in its new space. He also pressed Rev. Cliff Wilson of Mt. Pisgah how far along the church was in its fundraising for a new building. Wilson said it was “at the beginning.”

Vice Chair Max Puchtel asked whether the church’s finances were really in the commission’s purview. Halik admitted that such considerations likely were outside it, but said if the two projects are on different timelines, the chances of a vacant lot remaining increased.  

Attorney Hailey Guion, who is representing a law firm in the neighboring building, 1817 Church St., opposing the redevelopment, suggesting that Mt. Pisgah had “put the cart before the horse.”

Though they questioned the size of the building, several commissioners nevertheless praised the design concepts Mt. Pisgah’s architects had put forth for its proposed new home.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Halik. “It would be an asset on this corner. … [But] If you’re just at the beginning, you have a long way to go.” 

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  1. This program works by lowering property taxes to owners who commit to affordable housing goals. That shifts their property taxes to other owners, thereby making other housing more costly…

    Consider splitting a lunch tab – if one diner shorts his/her share, the rest of the diners have to make up the difference…

    Basically it’s how the tax ‘pie’ is split. If one property pays less tax, the rest of the ‘pie’ has to make up the difference…

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident