Evanston City Council members tabled action Monday night on a mixed-use affordable housing development in the Church-Darrow area, but will keep the issue before the council.

A rendering from the City Council packet shows a proposed four-story building (center) at 1811-1815 Church St. The proposed new Mt. Pisgah place of worship is seen at right. Credit: Cordogan Clark

Council members March 27 rejected a proposal that would have sent the matter back to the city’s Land Use Commission for another review. The project, several years in the making, has stirred community debate.

Mt. Pisgah Ministry and Skokie-based Housing Opportunity Development Corp. (HODC), a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, are collaborating on the proposal to redevelop parcels at 1811-1815 Church St.

The partnership involves a land swap, with HODC developing its mixed-use building on the site now occupied by the church, and Mt. Pisgah relocating to parcels just to the east, footing the cost of a new 200-seat place of worship.

At Monday night’s meeting, Council Member Bobby Burns, in whose Fifth Ward the site is located, proposed tabling action on the issue, allowing time to restore some reductions in retail.

At the council’s March 13 Planning & Development meeting, Burns had proposed a reduction in the height of the mixed use building from five stories to four and the number of dwelling units from 44 to 33, responding to criticism from some community members about the size and bulk of the project.

Ground floor retail would then be reduced from 3,537 feet to 1,233 square feet as a result of the changes.

Burns argued against First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly’s proposal that the issue be sent back to the city’s Land Use Commission, with the developer not requesting any new variances.

The reductions could reduce the developers’ cash flow from the project, and also affect other areas, including their ability to build parking below grade, “which freed up space for the 3,000 square feet of retail,” he said.

Burns expressed hope that tabling the issue until the April 10 council meeting will enable HODC to come up with a proposal that gets back to at least 2,000 square feet of retail, “which would make a difference.”

Kelly had called for the proposal to be sent back to the city’s Land Use Commission, noting the group had raised concerns previously relating to the project’s financial feasibility and parking.

Further, she noted, “there is drastic change from 44 to 33 units and also a drastic reduction of commercial space.” She said commercial space was “an essential component” of the Land Use Commission’s decision. “We’ve now lost about 75% of that commercial space,” she said.

Kelly also pointed out that Richard Koenig, longtime executive director of HODC, said “it wasn’t feasible” to reduce the proposal by a floor when he presented it to the Land Use Commission.

Council members voted 8-1 against Kelly’s proposal to send the issue back to the Land Use Commission, with Kelly casting the lone no vote.

Oversight of Claridge

Kelly also said she’d like to see HODC’s request tied to the developer addressing conditions at another of its buildings, the 48-unit Claridge at 319 Dempster St.

During the past two years, Kelly said, she has met several times with Koenig; Sarah Flax, the city’s Interim Community Development Director; and representatives from Connections for the Homeless to request more oversight of the Claridge, according to an article in the RoundTable March 1. 

She said a week after she and Council Member Melissa Wynne (3rd Ward) renewed their call for greater oversight at the building, a human body of advanced decomposition was removed from the building.

“I feel terrible for the residents in this building,” she said at the March 27 meeting. “I would like to see management and improvement there as a precondition to passing this. If we really care about our most vulnerable residents we have to do this – we have to say, come back once you’ve established, once you’ve agreed that there’s improved conditions at 319 Dempster.”

Flax maintained, though, there is no proof of a pattern of mismanagement by HODC at the Dempster building, when Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward) asked her about Kelly’s concerns.

She said the department had recently conducted a routine inspection of the building. “Were all the units perfect – no,” she said. But there was nothing out of the ordinary,  she maintained, from any other housing serving tenants at a similar income level.

Burns responded, reading from a timeline HODC had compiled, documenting actions the agency had taken in response to reports of a foul odor at the Claridge.

He said the timeline showed that HODC arrived at the location within 48 hours of receiving a report from a tenant about a peculiar odor.

Additionally, he said, “and this is the most important piece, especially for those where are set on trying to use what is a very sad situation to exploit the political composition that they have – that between the time the smell was reported and the time that the individual was sadly found deceased – first responders were not only in the building but  on the floor” where the body was eventually found.

“What I’m frustrated about is just people trying to use this incident as evidence that HODC has an issue managing their properties,” he said after the meeting. “I’ve looked into it. No  matter how you interpret it if you just look at the facts it doesn’t reflect poorly on HODC’s handling of that situation. “

“I’ve encouraged Council Member Kelly on numerous occasions to send me any additional evidence and she’s been unable to do that.”

Kelly maintained, however, that she’s raised concerns about conditions at the Claridge almost from the time she was elected.

“It’s just gone on,” she said during council discussion. “It’s really too much and to give a pass now and say, sure, we’ll go ahead and allow not only this project, but not hold accountability for the living conditions at 319 Dempster, I absolutely can’t support that.”

Support for affordable housing

Earlier, during public comment at the meeting, a number of leaders from the city’s affordable housing and faith communities spoke in support of approving the Mt. Pisgah/HODC project.

The outpouring was in contrast to the March 13 Planning & Development meeting, when a majority of the speakers opposed the project.

Addressing council members, Senior Pastor Monté Dillard, chairperson of Evanston Own It, an organization of pastors from the city’s Second and Fifth Wards, read a statement from the group expressing support of the development project.

“The completion of this project will contribute to the preservation of Black families, having the opportunity to remain Evanston residents,” the statement said.

“This development will serve as a tremendous model for the Black faith community,” he maintained. “The potential of a partnership with the city of Evanston for a development of this magnitude that significantly contributes to the city’s affordable housing challenges could potentially serve as a pathway for future endeavors.”

But Carlis Sutton, a landlord and longtime resident, spoke of the “slings and arrows” members of his group have endured, with community members suggesting they are against affordable housing.

“There’s more affordable housing within five blocks of my house than there are in all the other wards in Evanston,” he told council members. “Spread the wealth.”

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. I have lived across the street from the Claridge Apartments for 24 years. There are emergency vehicles at that building at least once a week (and often 2-4 times). The HODC mismanagement Issue is hardly confined to this most recent tragedy. HODC refuses to provide an on-site manager or social worker who might support the residents to proactively resolve situations before they escalate to the level of emergency calls. The Community Development Coordinator is aware that, as Council Member Kelly points out, this has been a long-term problem. If the City wants to learn about the record of management at 319 Dempster, it should speak with the immediate neighbors of the building, or better still, the residents.

  2. It’s frustrating that people for this project on hell bent on stati g it will help OUR community. When over and over it has been made clear that HODC CANNOT give Evanston residents priority. Make that make sense please. Bringing people from all areas to add to the low income population is helpful how? And putting them within certain blocks, because now with the rezoning the building WON’T be on the 5th but the 2nd. Yet it will STILL be on the block with already several affordable housing properties, whether public or privately owned they are still serving the population in need.