Editor’s note: This story has updated to clarify the roles of Mt. Pisgah Ministry and the Housing Opportunity Development Corp. in the project and the status of a posible $4 million city contribution.

Evanston City Council members are moving forward on a several years-long plan to redevelop parcels in the Church Street/Dodge Avenue area, even with neighborhood opposition to the project continuing to run high.

A rendering shows an affordable housing building on the Church Street site, next to a new worship center for Mt. Pisgah Ministry. Credit: Pisgah/Housing Opportunity Development Corp.

Members of the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee voted March 13 to approve for introduction an application growing out of a collaboration between Mt. Pisgah Ministry and Skokie-based Housing Opportunity Development Corp. (HODC), a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, for redevelopment of parcels at 1811-1815 Church St.

The project is to include a new 200-seat worship center for the church east of its current site on what is currently a city-owned vacant lot. The church is solely responsible for raising funds for that aspect of the project, with no financing or revenues related to the mixed-use building or HODC going for that purpose.

The city’s Housing and Community Development Committee previously showed backing for the plan, voting to recommend that the council approve $4 million, specifically for the residential project. The developer is in line to receive close to $13.5 million in Illinois low-income housing credits, to provide the bulk of the remaining financing for the project.

Residents sought other uses

At the March 13 Planning and Development Committee meeting, Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, sought to table the issue.

Kelly was responding to strong opposition from residents, including a number of smaller landlords in the area who sharply criticized the density of the mixed-used development, which will require a number of variances from zoning code.

Leading off public comment at the March 13 meeting, Roberta Hudson, active in neighborhood development issues in the area for nearly a quarter of a century, told committee members that her neighborhood group had conducted a survey of more than 400 community residents, asking what kind of uses they wanted to see in their neighborhood district.

“And what they wanted was a skill center to train our youth in the skills that they would need to become productive citizens,” she said. “And also they wanted to make sure that our kids would have training in the latest technologies. This has not happened after over 25 years. And, again, an opportunity to put something at Church and Dodge that would benefit our children is being overlooked again.

“When are you going to stop benefiting people from Winnetka [and] Northbrook … and [yet] not benefiting our children?” she asked committee members. “The community comes before you to indicate what their interest is, and you just ignore it.”

“Look at us,“ said longtime resident Carlis Sutton, referring to the community members who had turned out in opposition at the meeting. “This is Evanston’s Fifth Ward. We are what you propose us to be. We are diverse economically, we are diverse racially, and we are concerned about our property and our quality of life. How dare you sit there and pass judgment on us, when many of you have no affordable housing in your wards?”

In the nearly two-hour discussion, Kelly, chairing the meeting, sought to table the issue. She maintained the issue should be referred to the city’s Preservation Commission to examine what effect the demolition of the Church Street structure would have on a historic landmark property to the west.

She also argued in support of more research into residents’ claims that the Fifth Ward has become a dumping ground in the city’s zeal to support affordable housing — something several speakers referred to as “reverse redlining.”

“I feel like I really need to see how scattered our affordable housing is,” Kelly said. “We all want affordable housing, but sometimes maybe it’s about doing fewer affordable units in another part of town, rather doing than doing a lot because the land is cheaper.”

“I think we should all be concerned about this,” she continued. “I think we’re not looking to further sort of deepen segregation in Evanston.”

Burns: ‘A lot of double talk’

Planning and Development Committee members, however, voted against keeping the measure in committee for further review.

“The [city’s] Land Use Commission heard this three times and spent, I don’t know, 12, 15 hours,” observed 4th Ward Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma. “They approved it up to five stories, 57.7 feet. Why would we go back to them and say, ‘Hey, spend another 12 hours’ to tell us exactly what we know they’re going to say?”

To concerns about the concentration of affordable housing in the ward, Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns said he agreed and expressed hopes the residents would participate in a comprehensive planning process that is to look at that issue.

“I think that’s something that I 100% support and I think this body does,” he told residents.

On the other hand, he said, “I’ve heard people refer to this [project] as dumping this in the community. And then my question was, ‘Are you saying that the tenants are trash?’ I don’t understand that. What we’re saying is this is a good thing for the community.

“There’s a lot of double talk,” he charged. “You hear this around, especially in the African American community where they say, ‘We want to make sure that we can preserve not just affordability generally in Evanston, but in the Fifth Ward, in particular, because a school was just approved there.’

“And one of the concerns I hear is that people believe that the only reason why [District 65] has approved the school is because there’s more white people that live in the neighborhood. That is something that I’ve repeatedly heard. So why wouldn’t we want to find any and all opportunities to make our city more livable in the area where the school is going? Again, a lot of double talk. … So, again, I think this is the right project,” he concluded.

Burns proposed an amendment, nonetheless, calling for a reduction in the number of units in the building from 44 to 33. The change would reduce the height of the building from 57 feet to 47 feet, he said.

As amended, the building mix would now be 12 one-bedroom, 10 two-bedroom and 11 three-bedroom units.

Committee members voted 4-1 in favor of the amended ordinance, moving it to the full City Council. Council members, then, are expected to discuss and possibly vote on the issue at their March 27 meeting.

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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  1. Thank you for sharing this detailed story. Happy to hear there will be new affordable housing and echo the suggestion that there should be more affordable housing built throughout Evanston. Lots of sparsely used parking lots up and down Central that could be redeveloped! I hope all of Evanston can continue to raise legitimate concerns about projects like this while also being open minded to investing in Evanston’s future and making Evanston sustainable with more affordable housing.

  2. I have been a 20 year resident in Evanston, and a 12 year home owner in the fifth ward. I benefited from the housing assistance program with the city of Evanston, and I’ve noticed many issues that I’ve researched, that have been allowed to stagnate community growth and opportunity for equity. I’m hoping this will start families with the much needed affordable rates to rent in Evanston. We need to get the work done, but first we need to start and hopefully we will see the change, that will allow people to live, educate, work and build a safe , secure and promising future for all residents.