Is it a hotel if it is transient in nature, with rooms constantly turning over?

Or is it more along the lines of an apartment hotel, where people might rent rooms for longer periods – but with at least 25% of the rooms reserved for occupancy by transient guests?

The former King Home, 1555 Oak Ave., was once a retirement/assisted living facility. It would be converted to an apartment hotel under a proposal by owner Cameel Halim. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

The City Council’s Planning & Development Committee on March 27 pressed Cameel Halim, who is seeking special use zoning to convert the former King Home at 1555 Oak Ave. into an apartment hotel: Under which category of the city’s zoning ordinance does he intend to operate?

If he wants to run the operation as 100% transient, without leases, “to me that’s a hotel, and hotels are not permitted in that zoning district,” maintained City Council Member Melissa Wynne (3rd Ward).

Wynne said she recognizes the code might technically allow the use, “but I think the spirit of our code is that we have certain designated areas for hotels, and this is a designated area to be an apartment hotel. So I have concerns about that.”

Across the street from Halim museum

The building at 1555 Oak Ave. for many years was known as the King Home and used as a retirement/assisted living facility operated by the Presbyterian Homes.

Halim, who owns a number of commercial and real estate properties in Evanston and the North Shore, purchased the six-story institutional building in 2017 intending to operate it as independent and assisted living.

“But then the pandemic hit and we began to look for other potential uses,” said Alan Didesch, Halim’s attorney, speaking at the March 27 meeting. 

Property owner Cameel Halim (left) and his attorney Alan Didesch appear before the Planning & Development Committee on March 27. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

For a while, Halim, a Kenilworth resident, considered remodeling the building to become an annex for his Halim Time & Glass Museum located across the street at 1560 Oak Ave. He never moved forward on that use, however.

According to a memo on the issue from Melissa Klotz, the city’s zoning administrator, “The building has sat vacant since 2017 while also incurring or generating nearly $280,000 in property tax for the last tax year.”

Currently, the building has 67 units that contain bathrooms and kitchenettes without stoves. If the special use zoning is granted, stoves will be added so that all the units are in compliance with the zoning code, Didesch said. The building also includes two large restaurant areas, two large meeting rooms, an exercise facility, a barber shop, a library and space for a sundries store, he said.

Didesch quoted from the city’s zoning code on the definition of an apartment hotel as one in which all accommodations are provided within dwelling units, and at least 25% of the guest rooms are for occupancy by transient guests.

All the rooms will qualify as complete living units once stoves are added, Didesch told committe members.

“Second, the code does require that at least 25% of the guest rooms are for occupancy by transient guests. We propose that up to 100% of the guest rooms will be used for transient guests and therefore we satisfy the second requirement for an apartment hotel.”

In discussion, Wynne asked Halim whether he had any experience running a hotel.

Halim spoke of his work as a successful business person, running more than 5,000 units of commercial, office and rental space.

As for his experience running a hotel, he noted that he had no experience running a museum before he opened one. “The museum is one of the most successful museums in the world,” he said.

Further, he said that his company is in the process of signing an agreement with Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, one of the largest hotel franchisors in the world, to operate the facility.

Wynne asked if Wyndham employees then would run the operation as a standard hotel, with a general manager and a reservation desk.

Halim said it is likely his company will run the operation itself. He said his company has 500 employees and has extensive experience in management, overseeing many apartment rentals. “We’re the best in town for what we do,” Halim said, “and running a hotel is nothing.”

He said the bookings, though, would probably be handled through Wyndham.

Didesch added, “The other thing you have to keep in mind is that Wyndham is putting their name on this, so they will be constantly monitoring our performance to make sure that we don’t dirty their name, if you will. They will be coming in with their testers and so forth to make sure that we comply with all their requirements.”

Short-term guests: 25% vs. 100%

Halim told committee members his team deliberately chose not to run the building as an apartment building, with the company already having extensive holdings in that market.

Council Member Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward) said that according to her understanding of an apartment hotel use, the project would be a desirable addition to the range of accommodations in the community. “But I’m troubled by the fact that if it’s 100% transient, then it would be a hotel,” she said.

Didesch responded, “You have to understand that at this point, we simply don’t know what percentage of perhaps, professors visiting from out of town, would be staying in our place for a month or six months, coming in for the university for research projects and so forth. We just don’t know yet how long people are going to be staying. We can’t make a prediction.”

Council Member Clare Kelly (1st Ward) noted that the apartment hotel application will be the first one under a new licensing program recently adopted by the council.

“And I think we should all be aware that a special use permit can be issued with conditions [with which the applicant would have to comply],” Kelly said. She added that the new “operating agreement now is so important since our licensing isn’t really setting standards – everything is going to be in that agreement.”

Didesch had noted earlier in the meeting that the company had not presented an operating agreement “because simply we don’t know what one is,” noting that even a Google search had not yielded the information.

 “We have absolutely no idea,” he told committee members. “It’s not anywhere in the zoning code. So before we can even submit an operating agreement we need to know what one is.”

Committee seeks more information

Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, in whose Fourth Ward the site is located, maintained that committee did not have enough information to move the issue forward.

“I think there are some questions about the percentage of transient guests,” he said. He suggested that the operating agreement should “be something that we would feel comfortable advancing to – more than just a conceptual state.”

He further noted, “If it’s all long-term [occupancy], then the inclusionary housing ordinance [stipulating a percentage of units be reserved for low- and moderate-income tenants] may apply. If it’s short term, it’s kind of a hotel.”

He said more information about the applicant’s arrangement with Wyndham would also be appropriate, “and some more discussion about ensuring that well-qualified management is in place.”

He asked Halim if he would be comfortable committing to a certain percentage of long-and short-term occupants.

Halim replied, “I really would like to comply with the code. I don’t want to change the code because somebody wants me to change the code. I’d like to comply with the code.

“I’ve waited too long [since the purchase]. I tried very hard to run this building as assisted living. [It’s] three, four years now since we bought it. We spent millions of dollars in that building, and we need to get going.”

Nieuwsma made a motion that the committee table the proposal to allow the applicant time to address these issues, suggesting he and staff meet with Halim to address them before the committee’s April 24 meeting.

Halim observed that that the project as now presented is in conformance with city code. 

“Really, we have the building vacant. We need to get going on construction,” he said. 

He added, “I have done everything that the code wants from me.”

He raised concern that questions such as whether his company has experience to run hotels fell outside what is required, “and I have a problem with that.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” said Nieuwsma. “I’m saying that this committee needs some additional information.”

Nieuwsma’s motion to table the proposal passed on a unanimous vote.

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. How much vehicle traffic, pedestrian traffic, and additional noise will this type of building create in what is basically a residential location? Mr. Halim’s off the cuff comment “We’re the best in town for what we do,” Halim said, “and running a hotel is nothing.”, is flippant and boastful and not trustworthy. Collect the needed data and proceed from there.

  2. As a 4th Ward resident living two blocks from 1555 Oak, I want to add a different perspective. An “apartment hotel” may be an acceptable addition to the neighborhood, certainly better than a building continuing to sit vacant, as this one has for several years. But there are legitimate questions about the current proposal, and it’s reasonable for Council members to allow time to make sure they are answered. Some of the owner’s implausible statements at the Planning and Development Committee meeting on March 27 actually underscore the need to move with deliberation. The “museum,” for example, operates as a catering and clock repair business, not what the owner claimed was “one of the most successful museums in the world.” I walk by nearly every day and each time for the past few years the building has a sign facing the street indicating it is closed and the website continues to say it is undergoing “installation and expansion”. There also are questions about the parking lot behind 1555 Oak , which appears to be out of compliance with city code, with loose gravel and lime washing onto the public sidewalk and stunting a nearby public tree. The process for considering the fate of the Margarita Inn has been slow (partly because of Mr. Halim) and careful. There’s no reason to rush to a decision on this proposal.

  3. Also, as an attorney, I cannot come up with any reason as to why Wynne, was chomping at the bit to question Halim with such ferocity. It has made me look at her differently, which is most unfortunate, as she is the most experienced councilmember on the dias now. I would have expected more courtesy and willingness to get information, instead of her stating from the onset “I have a problem with this” and implying that he was twisting the code for a special zoning designation that was not allowed (a hotel). The view from 30,000 feet was of a government official looking down and speaking patronizingly to an older gentleman and that is never a good way to be seen. The optics were terrible for her.

  4. I have a big problem with Jonathan Nieuwsma thinking that Connections for the Homeless is an ideal operator (when he could not get one real neighbor to sign onto the Good Neighbor Agreement), yet Halim has to prove that he is good enough to run his own building? That he paid for with no federal funding and continues to pay taxes on? How is it that the City prefers non profits in messy deals who don’t pay taxes and won’t work with police, but drag out approval for tax paying businesses who apply all standards required by Code? The City Council and Mayor Biss have some nerve.

  5. Mr Halim is my landlord and I am writing to support him because when we could not pay our rent due to medical bills he was very kind to us and to my parents and helped my family. I don’t know why they think he is not qualified the man has more money than all the politicians in the city hall and is probably more generous too. I think they are maybe jealous or want to punish him.

  6. I have lived in a building run by Halim’s company for 27 some years. When they bought the building, the hallways were dark and the neighbors were not the kind of people we would choose to live next to. We chose it because it was priced within our budget but at the time it would not have been our first choice. Over the years, they have really cleaned up this building and filled it with people I actually like living next to. I remember Mr Halim cleaning the building when we first moved in and he was always smiling and very polite to us. They also plant nuce red flowers in the summer and I have never had a phone call unreturned . They did also get rid of the gangs, for which I am ever greatful. Their staff is always nice and hardworking, even though their English may not be great. They are honest people and the manager lives in the building which makes us feel safe and like they really look out for the building. I should say that over these years they have not raised the rent on us too much and we appreciate that, especially with all the talk of affordable housing. I’m writing this to say that the man runs a clean business and I would not worry about him failing in his projects. The city should hope all businessmen are in the game long term like this instead of giving him a hard time.

  7. Couple what you’re saying and add in [i]this[.i]:
    [b]Halim replied, “I really would like to comply with the code. I don’t want to change the code because somebody wants me to change the code. [i]I’d like to comply with the code.[/i][/b]

    And since the shelter is happening against the wishes of everyone within 500′ except 4 ladies in that other assisted living building ([b]who probably haven’t left their building on foot since 2018[/b]). [i](all my opinion)[/i]
    Wouldn’t it be nice for C4H to be able to rent out some of the apartments for their client successes?
    I can’t see why that couldn’t happen.

  8. I live extremely close to 1555 Oak Ave. (since March 2019). I can personally attest to what a wonderful and considerate neighbor the Halim family and their employees have been. They keep their properties and parking areas pristine. I see the workers/employees often and they do a terrific job maintaining the grounds, cleaning up after the trash tossed in the area from others. I enjoy seeing their patrons of the museum attending weddings or other functions. Honestly, they have enhanced this neighborhood. Their workers frequent the businesses on Davis and support the economy. I’m baffled why all the roadblocks for a business plan compliant with current zoning – when concessions were made for Connections for the Homeless who struggles (at best) to be a good neighbor and does nothing to enhance our neighborhood.
    As far as Mr. Halim never having experience running a hotel – that is not an issue for zoning. What he has experience as is being a kind and generous business leader with the tools and means to delegate the hands-on hotel operations to the right people. No CEO personally runs all facets of a large business, they hire the right people. Mr. Halim has a proven record of accomplishment in this area. I support his plan.

  9. The apparent focus on Mr. Halim’s lack of direct experience as a hotel operator highlights the city cousel’s lack of experience in operating businesses. As a former franchisee in a different industry, I know how much oversight an operator is subject to under the terms of a franchise license agreement. The discussion makes me wonder which nationally branded hotel chains would be deemed acceptable to the city counsel?
    Evanston desperately needs more housing. This seems a good potential offering for people coming through the city whether it be to attend NU sporting events, visiting family for an extended stay, seeking special medical care or just navigating the uncertainties of daily life. Short-term temporary rentals such as VRBO and AirBnB have had a myriad of restrictions, both from city ordinances and property specific restrictions such as those imposed by condominium boards. Let’s allow a market rate business to operate under the terms of the existing code.

  10. I watched this online and must admit that I was uncomfortable with how Mr. Halim was interrogated. Councilmember Wynne was exceptionally aggressive and seemed surprised when Halim knew the code better than she did. I was relieved that Councilmember Reid stated that he found him to be “qualified.” Why would this man have to prove his qualifications? How many businesspeople have to provide their qualifications to run a business in a property they *own* ? This seemed like a personal attack on his abilities as a businessman when concerns should have been on following their own codes, protocol, and procedure. This was a new low for this council, and gave a very poor impression of this council.

  11. From the article:

    “In discussion, Wynne asked Halim whether he had any experience running a hotel…

    Halim spoke of his work as a successful business person, running more than 5,000 units of commercial, office and rental space…”

    So, it’s mostly all hearts and roses and accolades from our city officials for a place like the Margarita Inn homeless shelter, which provides no financial “added value” to Evanston, and is in fact a drain on our civic resources And naturally, for city officials it’s a “given” that Connections for the Homeless is adept (using their stated “best practices”) at running a real estate venture (a hotel cum transitional homeless shelter) – which of course they have absolutely *zero* experience in doing…

    Yet, when Mr. Halim puts forth a solid business plan for a lovely facility that would bring *great* “added value” to our 4th Ward neighborhood and Evanston, the city dithers, citing arcane “zoning” strictures, and questioning his motives…

    Perhaps a “solution” would be to hire outside consultants à la the ‘Evanston Thrives’ report (which cost $245,000.00) to draft another plan to “reinvigorate” our dying – on – the – vine retail/entertainment districts…???

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident

  12. As a Fourth Ward resident, I believe Mr. Halim should have his hotel. The former Margarita Inn, directly across the street, operated as a hotel for decades and would still be operating had it not been for the pandemic. Not to open the entire shelter debate, but now that the Margarita Inn has been repurposed, the counsel should not have concerns about transients in the neighborhood. What value are we getting from a vacant building?

  13. This is really interesting and a case study in why evanston government doesn’t work. The fact that the city bends over backwards to allow for the margarita inn to convert from a hotel (was it even legally a hotel?) to a homeless shelter directly across the street from this site that they are blocking from being a hotel is quite rich.

    I love the part when the lawyer points out that they and Google doesn’t even know what an operating agreement is particularly funny. Evanston makes things up and expects everyone else to bend them because we believe we are somehow so exceptional. It’s time to Evanston leader ship looks at self in the mirror and also looks at the communities around us and asks if we’re really that exceptional.

    “Didesch had noted earlier in the meeting that the company had not presented an operating agreement “because simply we don’t know what one is,” noting that even a Google search had not yielded the information.

    “We have absolutely no idea,” he told committee members. “It’s not anywhere in the zoning code. So before we can even submit an operating agreement we need to know what one is.”