The Reverend. Clifford Wilson, pastor of Mount Pisgah Ministry, has for years been eyeing the vacant lot just west of his storefront church at 1805 Church St.
But it was not until recently that the church saw an opportunity to move forward with the 17,000 square-foot lot, formerly the site of a gas station.
At a special community meeting July 30, Rev. Wilson, who said his church has held property in the area since 1983, spoke of the possibility of erecting a senior housing building on the now City-owned site.
“That was my plan from the beginning. The senior citizens in Evanston in the Fifth Ward cannot afford to live anywhere east of the Fifth Ward,” Rev. Wilson maintained.
Fifth Ward Ald. Robin Rue Simmons called the meeting, seeking ideas for a request for proposal the City plans to send out inviting redevelopment of the site.
The City acquired two nearby parcels, which wrap around the corner, at 1708 and 1710 Darrow 10 years ago, as part of an ambitious West Evanston Master plan. The plan, looking to spur residential development, established new zoning guidelines for an area running from Simpson Street and Green Bay Road to Greenwood Street west of Dodge Avenue.
Earlier this year, the City added the 1805 Church property, acquiring it from Daniel Heifetz in lieu of a foreclosure, said Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Community Development.
Chevron, which conducted a cleanup of the former gas station lot, still holds a lien on the property, Mr. Zalmezak said, so if the City were to sell the land at a profit it would have to reimburse that company up to $100,000 for a portion of the cleanup, he said.
The request for proposal represents the latest attempt by the City to spur development in the area. In 2006, aldermen rejected a proposal by the then Wilmette-based Housing Opportunity Development Corp., a not-for-profit group, to build a four-story building with 27 affordable rent-to-own units on the same lots. Critics raised concerns about the high cost of the units.
In this latest go-round, officials have set their sights on a mixed-income development reflecting the surrounding neighborhood, staff said in their invitation to the meeting.
Ideally, the project would include commercial business on the first floor to support the commercial corridor starting at Darrow Avenue, and including the new Youth Umbrella Organization building and Evanston Township High School to the west.
The dozen or so residents at the meeting sent strong signals that whatever goes in will have to be compatible.
Carlis Sutton, a resident of the 1800 block of Darrow who took part in the 2006 discussion, expressed concern about “spot zoning.” Any changes contemplated should take in the concerns of residents too,” he argued.
Ald. Rue Simmons said that was one reason for the meeting. “I’m hoping we can have a lot of input from the community on that. I’m hopeful we can get together and come up with a vision for the lot and its use.”
In addition to Rev. Wilson, several other residents spoke of possibilities. One, Fuschia Winston, said her grandfather operated an auto body shop at the 1805 Church St. site for many years, into the 1980s.
“My grandfather used his business to put his siblings through school, to support his cousins, to teach people in the neighborhood to learn the auto body trade,” she told officials, “and I feel the property should be used to support the neighbors. He used to educate the people who lived in the neighborhood to teach them a skill or a trade.”
Tina Paden, another longtime resident, spoke in support of the property being used for something other than housing. Ms. Paden said the city could establish a facility on the site where young people in the area could learn a trade and qualify for union membership, she said, “So we could get on some of those big projects that are going on around us.”
City officials recently acknowledged that local hiring is well below their goal on the $53 million Robert Crown Center project. Officials say there aren’t enough union member residents who qualify to work at the project.
Madelyn Ducre, another longtime resident, recalled when the Darrow neighborhood included a recreation place where young people would play pool. There was “a laundromat across the street, a restaurant here, a restaurant there,” she said, adding: “A bank is what I always wanted to see somewhere in the Fifth Ward.” Instead of traveling elsewhere, “we could invest our money, keep it in the community,” she said.
Rev. Wilson said the church has been trying to buy the properties for “many, many years,” but was deterred for a while because of the high cost of the cleanup at the site.
He said the church has already invested in architectural plans contingent on acquiring the property. Part of the church’s first phase of the plan calls for tearing down surrounding property and building a new church building.
In the second phase, he said, “We want to erect on the property senior citizen housing.” Currently, seniors in the Fifth Ward cannot afford to live anywhere east of the Fifth Ward, he said. “They can’t afford the Georgian or what is down there in those other places.”
The second phase would entail the building of the senior citizen residence, providing housing for as many as 45 seniors, Rev. Wilson said.
In discussion, Ald. Rue Simmons asked staff for a report on the individuals currently on a waiting list for affordable housing. The information would allow officials to start from “an informed place” on who is waiting for units, and would include a breakdown of families and seniors making up the list. “That’s important for us to consider,” she said.
Rev. Wilson informed officials that Mt. Pisgah “is a small church, but we have a substantial amount of money we’ve collected over the years to do what we do,” he said, regarding plans which have already been drawn up for the project. “I realize that once we start spending big money it could be gone in no time at all,” he said, expressing hope the church could collaborate with the City on the project.