A City Council member took strong issue April 26 with the decision by city economic development officials to depart from past practice and allow a developer to present economic benefits of his residential project at the April 26 Economic Development Committee.

Clare Kelly, council member in the First Ward where the Horizon Realty Group is seeking approval for a 140-unit luxury high rise at 1621-31 Chicago Ave., maintained the move bypassed the usual way residents monitor big developments.

If officials had followed the usual course, “this room, we all know, would be packed,” she told EDC members. “It feels, to the residents, underhanded. I’m just going to say that.”

Council member Bobby Burns (5th Ward), the current chair of the city’s Economic Development Committee, said the developers reached out, “I would imagine to all Council members at this point, and maybe even going beyond that,” to talk about their proposal.

Burns said the request fits with his own philosophy – “to give consideration to anyone who reaches out – be it a community group, organization or individual,” and that the proposal aligned “with the type of items brought to the Economic Development Committee.”

Developer Jeff Michael (left center) and Jonathan Perman (to the right) for Horizon Realty present details of their proposed project for 1621 Chicago Ave. at the April 26 Economic Development Committee meeting. Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development manager, is in the foreground. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

To be sure, Burns checked with the city Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak to see if he thought it was good fit.

Zalmezak said the committee had not been approached by a real estate developer before with such a request.

Committee’s purpose

Nevertheless, Zalmezak pointed out that the purpose of the committee, as stated on its page on the city website, is “to review and make recommendations concerning all redevelopment proposals…”

While it would not be appropriate for the committee to discuss the project’s land use requirements, the economic impacts may be another matter, he suggested.

“There typically is never an opportunity to look at that at council meetings,” he said. “We’re always talking at the council level about the zoning and land use approvals of a project.” In fact, he said, “developers are often steered way from talking about the economics,” he said.

Kelly argued against the move, however, calling it a lack of transparency, noting there is already “a really wonderful page for transparency” on the city’s website for planned developments.

She said residents can monitor that page daily for discussions, “for community meetings, to discuss economic impact, everything,” she said.

“And  this is a very, very controversial project,” she stressed. “We all know that … And so, needless to say this evening, residents are very upset.

“I’m also very concerned because it’s in my ward. I wasn’t consulted about bringing it here. I certainly would have had something to say, I would have insisted it was on that page because I know residents are always monitoring that page to find out what’s coming up next.

“Now this is not going to be a well-rounded discussion because the residents who oppose this and have concerns about economic impact will not be here this evening, and other experts to discuss this.”

Burns said he was unaware of the planned projects page, “and honestly, it’s out of the scope of this committee to determine whether or not its items would go on that page.”

The city’s Land Use Commission, an advisory body, voted 5-4 against the developer’s request for special use zoning at its March 8 meeting. The project’s request for zoning and land use is expected to be considered by the Council’s Planning & Development Committee perhaps as early as May 22, though staff hadn’t confirmed that.

Burns said if the proposal is not acted on by the committee’s next meeting, he would be willing to invite developers back again, “and you will have an opportunity to invite interested parties to present,” he told Kelly.

Leap in property taxes

Jeffrey Michael, the developer, and Jonathan Perman, a consultant, outlined the project in their presentation to the committee, with Burns stepping in and redirecting them when their remarks went out of the area of the development’s economic impact.

Material presented with proposals for the Legacy high-rise development at 1621-1631 Chicago Ave. Credit: City of Evanston

The project is planned for a 21,664-square-foot site, with development of a luxury 15-story building with 140 apartments, 7,195 square feet of ground floor commercial space and parking for 57 cars.

The 15th floor would feature an outdoor swimming pool, fitness center, lounge area, outdoor seating/dining area as well as a dog run.

The site currently generates about $110,000 in property taxes, which is shared among the various taxing bodies, said Perman, at one time the executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce.

With the project fully occupied, the property tax is expected by them to be $817,000.

“That’s a pretty significant leap,” he told EDC members.

Looking at a 13-year period, stretching from 2023 or 2024 to 2035, he said estimated total revenues, not just for the city, but for all taxing bodies, would come to about $12 million.

Both Perman and Michael emphasized the foot traffic that would be generated with the new residents, meeting what has been identified as a key need.

Michael said about the project, “I’m biased, I own it. But I think this is the kind of project that Evanston should really rally behind it. This is what we need here, to patronize our stores, to patronize our restaurants.”

He said on his way to the meeting, “I was just shocked how many empty storefronts, how many restaurants have closed and it’s changed over the last five years because of the COVID pandemic and we need to bring people back.”

To view the entire presentation, visit the city’s YouTube page, and search under Economic Development Committee meeting.

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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