For more than three years, residents living in or near a vacant corner lot at 2626 Reese Ave. have dutifully trekked to City zoning and committee and Council meetings to raise objections to a builder’s plans to build a nearly 2,000-square-foot house on the property.
The neighbors were at the April 22 Planning & Development Committee meeting, too, but this time they walked out with some finality.
Members of the P&D Committee voted not to send the builder’s request for zoning relief on to the full City Council, in effect ending consideration of the current proposal.
The applicant, William James, could submit a new proposal, but he would have to start at the beginning of the hearing process, a City attorney ruled after the committee vote.
P&D Committee members had tabled the issue at their Feb. 11 meeting, allowing neighbors to review revised plans submitted by Mr. James the previous day.
At the April 22 meeting, neighbors continued to raise objections to the proposal, which Mr. James had revised based on recommendations by staff to reduce the bulk structure.
Staff noted that in the revised proposal, the applicant came much closer to requirements than he did in an earlier one, which proposed 42.5% building lot coverage where 30% is allowed and which the City Zoning Board recommended against.
The revised proposal called for 36.5% lot coverage where 30% is allowed, “and where the average among other substandard corner lots is 41.5%,” City staff pointed out.
All the other zoning variations that were previously requested, including the small setbacks requested for the street side yard for the house, garage and deck, would remain the same.
The revisions reduce the building’s bulk and increase the visibility to the alley, staff maintained.
“Smaller homes should continue to be constructed throughout Evanston to provide starter homes and homes that are available at a lower price point than the average Evanston home price,” staff members observed.
During citizen comment, though, the speakers, many of them neighbors to the property, maintained that the proposed structure is still too large and does not fit the neighborhood.
Richard Horsting, who lives next door to the property, told Council members, that “this ridiculous proposal is asking for major double-digit percentage variance requests – the deck, the basement, the garage. Not small variances – I would be open to small variances – but these are double-digit percentage variances that he is requesting.
“For over three years, the City Council, P&D and the ZBA have heard all these issues affecting my house, my neighbors and the neighborhood, and the ZBA has already denied the plan twice,” he said.
Beside the major double-digit variance requests, Mr. Horsting named water runoff, grading, sewer, parking and flood control as issues. “We looked up 25-foot corner lot homes in northwest Evanston,” he told aldermen. “There aren’t any.”
Another speaker, Joseph Paradi, of 2907 Hartzell St., acknowledged that the builder’s latest proposal contained changes that attempted to address previous concerns. But he said the proposal includes other changes that compound concerns, including a 10-foot-high basement only slightly above ground, which he maintained, would exacerbate flooding in the neighborhood.
Another speaker, Kathy Miller, who lives directly across the street from the property, expressed concern that the proposed project is still going to result in a 50-foot-long building, about three-and-a-half feet from the sidewalk.
She also noted that changes the Council enacted 19 years ago setting rules for substandard lots had not caused any problems. “For some reason, [City] staff seems interested in building on substandard lots that are now grandfathered. Don’t break something that’s fixed,” she urged aldermen.
Speaking at the end, Mr. James said the revised proposal was made possible through modifications of the building design, including the roof area. He described the changes “as something I could live with. ... It’s much better than not having any house to build at all.
“Legally, I have a right to build the house there, and that’s why I pursued it all this time,” he told Council members.
The City’s technical review body, the Design and Appearance Review (DAPR), voted twice to recommend approval of the house design for the lot, Mr. James has pointed out.
“The neighbors, by and large, were in older homes that were built under old rules,” he maintained. “This house would fit in with the neighborhood,” he said. “There are other 25-foot lots with houses on them that frankly are larger, have less setbacks than this would have, so this is not in any way out of character.”
Mr. James commended staff on a fact-based report suggesting the revisions. He maintained that the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals, though, was not impartial on the issue but rather was biased toward the neighbors.
In discussion, Committee members voiced mixed views on whether to continue to see if a resolution could be reached on the issue.
In the past, officials have eyed long- vacant lots such as the Reese lot, “in conjunction with opportunities for more affordable housing, more market-rate affordable housing,” noted Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward.
Ald. Wilson said this particular proposal, while perhaps not a million-dollar house, does not fall in that category. Further, he said he was not comfortable “to go that far in the variances” that were being requested, for the possibility of creating affordable housing.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, suggested that officials may just to have accept in such cases that there are not going to be any affordable homes built on small lots.
“Affordable housing is very expensive,” she said. “You can look at journals anywhere ... what you need are subsidies to keep housing affordable.”
Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said that when she had visited the site before the meeting she found “there were a lot of these substandard lots in the neighborhood.” She reported seeing many instances of setbacks that also looked similar “to what this proposal is.”
She said that with the revisions, the footprint of the proposed building is now closer to the requirement.
On the other hand, “coming into the meeting, I have to say the storm water question wasn’t a major concern,” she said.
“If the water table is truly just a few inches below the surface, I don’t think we want a house that needs a sump pump that’s running 24 hours a day,” observed Ald. Revelle.
After further discussion of that concern, Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, suggested that Council members had become sidetracked with the water table issue and suggested they go back about an hour or half hour or so in the meeting to the concerns raised by neighbors.
He said while Mr. James said he could live with the revised project in a colloquial sense, “these people [neighbors] would have to live with it in an actual, real ‘It’s on their block sense,’ and it’s too big for their lot. That's the bottom line.”
Bringing the issue to a vote, aldermen voted against sending the most recent proposal to the Council for consideration.
Filing out of the Civic Center, Ms. Miller called the Council’s action “the right thing to do.
“It was a very long time coming,” she said. “There have been a lot of City people involved in this.”
She was not happy at the criticism of the ZBA by the builder, “because they have standards. They always notified us. They have been very fair to the point that most of the time they rejected this. I had been expecting them to support it.”
Ms. Miller said that while there were “a lot of difficult questions,” as a builder in other North Shore communities, “you walk this,” she said.
“Walking around this tells you it is too small. Just from your eyeball. I met the builder shortly after he purchased the property, and I told him to sell it, carry the loss forward and “move on, because it really is difficult.”