The Evanston Land Use Commission on Wednesday, March 8, voted 5-4 against recommending the long-in-the-works Legacy apartment building proposed for 1621-31 Chicago Ave.

Plans for the proposed Legacy Evanston, 1621-1631 Chicago Ave. Credit: Supplied

This was the third proposal by the site’s owners, Chicago-based Horizon Realty Group, to come before the city. Each iteration of Horizon’s plans has largely been met with resistance from neighbors. As audience members took their seats March 8, one individual loudly remarked, “This is Evanston’s answer to Groundhog Day.

The current proposal will still go before the City Council, but without the commission’s support.

Horizon needs four allowances in order to proceed with the 15-story, 165-foot project. They are 100 dwelling units, where no more than 54 are normally allowed; a building height of 145 feet, where no more than 105 feet is permitted; 57 on-site parking stalls, where a minimum of 118 are required; and eight compact 90-degree parking stalls with a depth of 15 feet, where a minimum depth of 18 feet is required.

Twenty feet of the proposed building’s 165 foot height are not counted under the city’s zoning considerations because they would be given over to residential parking. And since Horizon is planning to include 10 onsite affordable units, it can propose four more units per each affordable unit, bringing the total number to 140 – meaning Legacy would conceivably include 140 units total. 

Jeffrey Michael, chief operating officer at Horizon Realty Group, presents the firm’s proposed plan for the Legacy at a Feb. 15 meeting. Credit: Manan Bhavnani

The developers reduced the number of floors from 18 to 15 this time around. Jeffrey Michael, Horizon’s chief operating officer, said the proposed development would bring “a much-desired rental product that is not seen much in Evanston,” and added that the new design reflected “substantial adjustments to assuage multiple concerns.”

The project’s architect, Tim Kent of Chicago-based Pappageorge Haymes Partners, added that the completed project would be “complementary not only to downtown Evanston, but an activated urban experience.”

Neighbors continued to voice concerns about the scale of the project, however. Though it is located in a “transitional” zoning district – between downtown Evanston and a residential neighborhood – many residents still said that the structure would look out of place near its immediate neighbors in its proposed location.

Residents were also concerned about a well-traveled alley that would be behind the Legacy, which is now often congested with delivery vehicles. They fear that congestion would only get worse if the Legacy ever had to undergo construction.

The Rev. Grace Imathiu of First United Methodist Church, 516 Church St., on the other side of that alley, said, “This building is testing our Methodist neighborliness.” She additionally decried what she called the Legacy’s “blasphemous size and density.”

Local resident Paul Breslin suggested that Horizon was trying to work its way around zoning rules to shoehorn in an approval for the Legacy: “I understand that zoning has to be flexible. … [But] this is not flexibility, this is alchemy.”

Nevertheless, several commissioners were impressed by changes Horizon had made since the last round. Commissioner George Halik, perhaps the most vigorous supporter of the proposal, said he was impressed that Horizon had implemented a more slender base to the structure, adding, “This project needs to happen because Evanston needs it. … A lot of people just want the status quo, but that’s not going to happen if we want a vibrant downtown.”

Commissioner Brian Johnson similarly praised the proposal, noting that it brings in “residents to a downtown that sorely needs them. … We want transit-oriented developments in appropriate locations.”

Commissioner Max Puchtel said, “I like everything about the building, except the height. … It clearly doesn’t fit the existing streetscape.”

Puchtel at one point questioned why Horizon was requesting the 40-foot allowance for the building’s height; Horizon COO Michael and his colleagues said 40 feet was the maximum allowance they were allowed to request in a proposal such as this; were Horizon to request an allowance of more than 40 feet, approval would require a supermajority vote by City Council.

Commissioner Kiril Mirintchev later characterized the requested allowances as “excessive.” 

Later in the meeting, Halik expressed exasperation when the 40-foot allowance was questioned again by the commission, since the zoning indicates Horizon has the right to ask for it.  

Chair Matt Rodgers, who ultimately voted against the proposal, acknowledged that the matter depended on the opinions of the commissioners as to how well-situated the Legacy would be in the neighborhood.

Rodgers praised the myriad financial benefits that Horizon had promised to accompany the proposal, noting that they were more “people-oriented” and less abstract than ones usually put forth by developers, but ultimately he decided that the height was still inappropriate for the location.

Commissioner Myrna Arevalo voiced support for the project, as did Commissioner John Hewko, who said Horizon’s requests seemed reasonable. 

Commissioner Kristine Westerberg added, “I don’t think there’s anything reprehensible in what the developer is asking for … but I do think the height is too much.” She also commented that the proposed benefits from the Legacy “are good, but they don’t justify the size of the project.”

Commissioner Jeanne Lindwall also agreed the proposed building would not provide “an appropriate transition” for the neighborhood and she was still “bothered by the height.” She added, “While I agree that the building is attractive, the building is too tall.” 

In the end, Lindwall, Mirintchev, Puchtel, Rodgers and Westerberg voted against recommending the Legacy proposal. Arevalo, Halik, Hewko and Johnson voted in favor.

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  1. I’m torn – having lived in Evanston most of the time since the 80’s and subsequently having seen how full of bullsnot real estate developers can be and how quickly they’ll just abandon a project and leave us with nothing but a naked eyesore for a decade or more (e.g. that lot that sat empty at Main and Chicago seemingly forever, and that big old wacky one north of Church on Oak and Ridge) I have zero trust in real estate developers. I don’t know if there’s anything anyone could say to convince me a real estate developer has any intentions beyond trying to fill Evanston with towering monstrosities made out of particle board and Elmer’s glue and the architectural artistic value of a soggy old Amazon box slowly decomposing in an alley next to a grease dumpster. As such, my first impulse is not to trust these guys.

    That being said, and this shouldn’t need to be said at this point, but housing is way too expensive and the only way to fix that problem (beyond cracking down on real estate speculators and penalizing owners of unused properties) is to build more homes. Beyond that, it’s extremely clear that building up is much better for the environment long term than building out and that deemphasizing cars in our infrastructure planning is a good thing. Property owners have always and will always complain about new building in their area because more affordable housing = their own property becoming more affordable (i.e. declining in value). As such, I’m also extremely skeptical of nearby property owners when they weigh in on a proposed development. Obviously that doesn’t mean their concerns aren’t justified (and in particular I know that Methodist church has done a lot of good work for the unhoused in the past, so I’d never accuse them of failing to take housing issues seriously).

    I guess my point is that the only people I really want to hear from in articles like this are architects who aren’t stooges for the developers. What’s the point of letting Northwestern slowly devour our city if they can’t at least provide us with a professor of architecture to weigh in on potential developments like this? I want to know if there’s any artistry here or if it’s the typical late stage capitalist “how can we make it look sorta modern as cheaply as possible?” style we’ve seen so much of along Emerson. Get it together, make those lazy professors earn their keep for once.

    1. “Make those lazy professors earn their keep for once.” Such an appealing way to ask for someone to volunteer their free time to help the community.

  2. A picture speaks a thousand words, and in this case the image accompanying this story says it all. The building is 5 stories too high for this transitional area, rising far above all of its neighboring building up and down the block on the east side of Chicago Avenue. Whatever the project’s other benefits, approving this design would just blow up the whole notion of a measured transition from commercial to residential and set a bad precedent that other developers would be quick to exploit. Evanston can have a vibrant downtown (and in fact does now) with a building that sticks to the code limit.

    1. You have been to a different downtown than i have. Small business are hurting with less and less retail shopping. This building will create much need revenue to our downtown. Maybe raising the parking rates again will help our retail.