City Council approves new development on Central Street

Alexandria Johnson

Evanston aldermen voted 8-1 at Monday’s City Council meeting to convert a vacant lot on Central Street into a rental and retail building.

In 2007, Dodge Capital, LLC, acquired the property of the former Evanston 5 Theaters on 1700-1722 Central St., originally planning to build a 51-unit condominium with about 11,200 square feet of proposed retail space.

“The condo market just completely cratered along with the economy, so we were never able to build that project,” said Bob Horne, Dodge Capital president and developer. “We sat on it as vacant land now for about four years and studied a whole bunch of alternatives as to what other land uses could work on the property, and then as the for-sale housing market just really deteriorated, that has in fact allowed the rental housing to strengthen.”

Dodge Capital presented a new plan to the public in June and then again at the Planning and Development Committee meeting on Sept. 26.

“Part of Central Street, particularly east of the Metra track, is very under-utilized. (It) is in need of a transformative development in order to make the area stronger in that corridor,” said Dennis Marino, the city’s planning and zoning manager. “The overall driving issue is when the west Evanston master plan was approved, there was a strong desire to revitalize this part of Central Street that’s pretty quiet.”

Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) was the only alderman to vote “no” on the proposal Monday, saying she looks “forward to something on that site too, but maybe something a bit better than what is being proposed.”

Ald. Jane Grover (7th), whose ward includes the proposed development, indicated retail development is “largely desirable” on Central Street.

“The lot cannot remain vacant,” Grover said. “Many concerns have been accounted for in planning.”

The site will feature a building with 80 rental units and slightly smaller retail space compared to the 2007 plan. The building will also include a more contemporary design and a LEED Silver certification, Horne said.

“We’ve made design changes that reflect both the LEED components of the building but also just the practical realities of the rental buildings,” Horne said.

Jeff Smith, a Central Street Neighbors Association board member, said he thinks the reduction from an original 100 parking spaces for about 50 units to 80 spaces for 80 units is alarming. Suburban families moving into these high-luxury units will likely possess more than one vehicle, he said.

“Those who live in the area dispute the assumptions of the parking surveys,” Smith said.

At the city and neighbors’ requests, Dodge Capital surveyed parking within 1,000 feet of the lot on two different occasions and found many under-utilized parking spaces in the area. Horne said as a LEED Silver building, it is only appropriate to add parking spaces if they are necessary.

“By doing all this analysis on parking, one of the main conclusions is that there is very adequate parking in the area, so that adding parking is promoting car ownership that doesn’t need to be promoted here,” Horne said.

Horne said Dodge Capital has addressed public concerns about widening the distance between the property itself and the property line by five feet. The new plan also made the parking garage two-way and increased the depth of the retail space from about 33 feet to about 50 feet.

“We did address many things that were brought up in the prior plan,” Horne said.

Dodge Capital plans to begin its work in Spring 2012 and conclude construction in Spring 2013, Horne said.

He said building the rental units and proposed retail space would improve the area in the long run.

“In the short term, while it’s being built, every major construction is usually a negative for business, but once it’s built, the conventional wisdom is that having 80 additional households should be of some help,” he said.

Storefront employees have expressed concern about deviation from the original 2007 plan as well as issues concerning the impact on traffic. Some are also worried about changing the building’s exterior from brick to cement sliding will damage its aesthetics.

“Just because you build a building doesn’t mean the stores will get rented out,” Smith said. “Just because you build a building, doesn’t mean the units will get filled.”

CSNA president David Staub said there are still many issues with the parking situation that need to be addressed, but given that the proposal has been approved, the city will likely lack leverage in initiating change.

“I welcome the concept of building something and given the market, a rental as opposed to condos is probably what we’re going to get,” Staub said. “I was just disappointed that in the rush to get something done, they short-cutted the process.”

Homeowners in the area have repeatedly voiced concern about the implications of this project on their homes.

“The city has turned a deaf ear to the concerns of homeowners near this project,” said Evanston resident John Labbe at Monday’s council meeting. “The developer will profit from these changes, but nearby homeowners like me will pay the price for them. We have been consistently denied both the procedural and substantive rights that Illinois zoning code specifically requires.”

Despite public discontent with the plan, Horne said he recognizes he is in a business of change. He said he has experienced similar reactions to his past projects.

“It’s like a piece of art ­- you never satisfy everybody,” Horne said. “We’ve presented a plan that will get this property redeveloped, and we’re satisfied that we presented a very thoughtful plan that will bring activity back to Central Street that’s been missing for close to a decade.”

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