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July 18, 2019

6/26/2019 1:41:00 PM
Aldermen to Seek Other Interests in Library Lot Site
by Bob Seidenberg

City Council members closed one chapter but quickly opened a new one on plans for the City-owned lot behind the Evanston Public Library.

At their June 24 meeting, aldermen approved a staff request that they file a resolution on a contract to sell the building at 1714-20 Chicago Ave., in effect terminating their contract with a developer looking   to develop an 11-story office building on the site.

Aldermen had failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed for sale of the building, which had received strong opposition from neighbors   and representatives of two adjacent landmark structures – the Frances Willard Museum and The Woman's Club of Evanston.

Two City committees, the Plan Commission and the Design & Project Review Committee, had recommended denial of the proposal, citing the lack of setbacks and traffic safety issues in the alley that runs behind the library.

Residents had also been strenuous in their opposition, maintaining the office building was a poor fit for the site.

At the June 24 meeting, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, a strong backer of the office building proposal, argued that the Council should authorize moving forward on a request for proposal from other developers who have shown interest in the property, setting a 30-day limit.

In support of her proposal, Ald. Fiske noted that whether citizens or Council members, those participating in the process until now have all come to the conclusion that there “is something likely to happen to this property.”

“I think it is incumbent on the Council to find out what interest is out there, and whether or not it is something that the Council wishes to pursue,” she told the other aldermen.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, questioned, though, whether the 30 days was sufficient time to find out what interest there is out there in the community. Further, she stated that aldermen should first debate and discuss just what it is they are interested in doing with the site.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, pointed out the substantial feedback aldermen received in the past three years underscored “that this is a real complicated piece of property to really figure out what is the best development.

“So before we move ahead with an RFP, [request for proposal],” she said, “I would like some expert input as to what shape, bulk, size, and height [of the] building would actually be appropriate and compatible with historic neighbors on the north and south and, secondly, what kind of uses, does the community want – because there is a lot community concern about a desire to have their voices heard.”

Ald.  Fiske maintained that it is important to recognize there are other people who have been following this closely, “that are interested in the property, and they are apparently qualified to buy it and develop it.”

If that does not work out, the City could always go out for another request for proposal, she said.

“I think we need to look at who is out there right now – who has expressed interest, who has contacted our staff and said ‘If there is anything out there with this project, contact us, we would be interested in participating,’” she said.

Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said it was his understanding that the offer the City had received was for development of an apartment building on the site.

“And I don't know what everybody else thinks,” he said, “but my inclination is, if it is going to be something, an appropriately-sized office building makes sense.”

Ald. Wilson said a better course would be to set the issue for discussion at a future meeting, “because I feel like people are not generally aware we’re going to talking about taking [the next step],   and I don’t want to preclude people from the conversation.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz suggested that the City consider issuing a “request for interest” rather than a request for proposal – a recommendation that received support from Council members, including Ald. Fiske, as a vehicle for moving forward.

“This is not a full-blown proposal,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “It’s just that you have period of time for anyone who is interested in discussing further purchasing the land that they make themselves known.”

Because of the July 4 holiday and short turnaround to draw up information on the proposal, Mr. Bobkiewicz proposed bringing back the matter to the Council at the July 22 meeting.

At Ald. Fiske’s request, staff will come back earlier with a draft of a request for interest, in time for the July 8 City Council meeting.

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