Citywatch: Historic status shouldn’t trump seniors’ concerns

Greg Lowe

I used to think landmark status was only used in Evanston to screw Northwestern. I was wrong.

Apparently it’s also used to screw senior citizens.

In the fall Mather LifeWays announced a $125 million plan to replace two of its senior care facilities in Evanston, saying they had become obsolete.

But there was a problem: One of the buildings looks nice.

The Georgian, 422 Davis St., is an 88-year-old former hotel and now home to Mather Place, a retirement community with more than 100 apartments. Local preservationists say the building’s classic terra cotta facade makes it a candidate for historic preservation.

In March the city’s Preservation Commission made a preliminary recommendation that The Georgian be designated a historic landmark, meaning it could not be torn down and rebuilt. The commission will finalize its recommendation at a May 18 meeting and then send it to Evanston City Council.

Mary Brugliera, a member of the commission, said its members have very strict standards to follow when making recommendations. The commission decided The Georgian is historic because it met two criteria: being a recognizable part of its neighborhood and having historical value — for representing the growth of Evanston from a small college town to a small city.

Not what they want

But Georgian residents don’t seem to care much about its historical value. They want new elevators.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Genevieve McGivern, 87, who has lived at The Georgian for 10 years. “The building has been here for so many years, and now that we want to replace it, they decide it’s a landmark.”

McGivern said everything in the building is outdated. “Our laundry is in the basement and often the basement floods,” she said. “Our elevators don’t work half the time. The windows are hard to open. We don’t have parking. We don’t have recreation facilities.”

Sara McVey, director of marketing for Mather LifeWays, said more than 90 percent of Georgian residents have voiced their support for the plan to replace the building, even though it calls for them to move temporarily into another Mather facility while The Georgian is rebuilt. Residents have written to their aldermen and spoken out in public meetings, McVey said.

“They’re going to be the ones that are going to be the most affected,” she said.

McVey said she thinks historic preservation is good — just not in the case of The Georgian.

Added benefit

And clearly the redevelopment of The Georgian property is important to Mather, which has offered to pay real estate taxes on the new building. As a nonprofit, Mather does not have to pay real estate taxes and does not do so currently.

McVey said the tax revenues could help fund local schools — especially important given Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s $1.7 million budget deficit.

The Preservation Commission is not allowed to consider the impact of landmark status on the residents of The Georgian or the community. It made its recommendation solely on the historic value of the building.

But when the recommendation is sent to City Council, the aldermen would be wise to consider the concerns of residents of The Georgian.

Historic preservation is a good thing, but the city needs to straighten out its priorities. Seniors having decent living facilities: important. Neighbors having a nice building to look at: not so important.

Increased tax revenues for local schools: a big deal. Historic value of a hotel from the 1920s: not so much.

Here’s hoping the aldermen figure all of that out.