A long-gestating proposal to demolish Unity on the North Shore Church and replace it with a day care center will not get a recommendation from the Evanston Land Use Commission after a 4-3 vote May 10. The matter next heads to the Evanston City Council. 

It was the third attempt for this proposal from Burr Ridge-based Kensington Schools. The site is at the angled, highly trafficked intersection of Central Street and Gross Point Road, at 3434 Central St.

Traffic is one major problem faced by Kensington; the other is a required easement through the property for the nearby First Williamsburg Cooperative that has yet to be agreed on.

Kensington expects the facility would serve about 165 children, and officials insist that drop-offs and pickups would be at level numbers throughout the center’s operating hours, and would not necessarily peak at any given time. Kensington was represented at the meeting by Charles Marlas, co-owner and chief executive officer.

Traffic is big issue

Numerous neighbors voiced concerns at the May 10 meeting that the project would nevertheless complicate already problematic traffic patterns.

LUC Commissioner Max Puchtel spoke adamantly in opposition, noting that he remained  “very concerned that it’s just not the right site for something like this. …It would almost be irresponsible of us to add a safety problem to an already problematic intersection.”

“This is a path for wealthy North Shore residents to drop off their kids before heading out onto the highway,” said resident Leslie Brown, who lives across the street.  

A few commissioners, among them George Halik – who last year was skeptical of the plan but now said he was satisfied with Kensington’s revisions – wondered whether they should vote against a viable proposal on the basis of the traffic concerns that already exist, and insisted those problems would vex any development attempting to go into the spot.

‘Best they can do’

“What they’ve done with the plan is the best they can do with the situation,” said Halik.

“Traffic congestion is there now,” said Commissioner Jeanne Lindwall, who added that the project “wouldn’t cause congestion in and of itself.”

But commission Chair Matt Rodgers disagreed: “I believe that when you place it next to an already hazardous location, it already compounds those [traffic problems].”

Kurt Condra, Unity’s senior minister, said the church needs changes and repairs to the building, many of which are now untenable thanks to a smaller membership base. The proceeds from the sale would go toward a new Evanston location.

“We were very deliberate in entertaining the offers that came before us,” Condra said. Kensingston’s was one of three offers for the location, and “right away felt like a good fit,” he added. 

Kurt Condra speaks to the Evanston Land Use Commission Wednesday about the Kensington School project. Credit: Matt Simonette.

The easement for First Williamsburg is still a sticking point, however, and it must be approved before the new project can get a building permit. Condra said that First Williamsburg’s attorneys were no longer participating in talks with the church and Kensington. 

Peter Roothaan, president of First Williamsburg’s board, said that residents there consider the proposal to be out of scale, and would not be an enhancement to the neighborhood. Kensington’s persistence in pursuing the matter, he added, “does not mean that it is a good proposal.”

Not ready for council

Commissioner Kiril Mirintchev also was critical of the proposed project’s scale, noting that “the building seems overwhelming… I don’t think this project is ready to go to City Council.”

Both Mirintchev and Commissioner Kristine Westerberg were critical of the architecture – Mirintchev said the building looked like “a civic center” more than a day care center – but other commissioners disagreed with them on that point.

Westerberg said she appreciated the project would get the property back on the city’s tax rolls, but she was ultimately a no vote. “I’d like to be able to support it – the problem is the traffic.”

Lindwall, who along with Halik and Commissioner John Hewko voted in favor of the project, said, “I’m supportive of this land use and the current site design, [but] our opinion isn’t going to make much difference until the parties can agree.”

“No” votes on May 10 included Westerberg, Puchtel, Rodgers and Mirintchev. Favorable votes came from Halik, Lindwall and Hewko.

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