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Angry neighbors turn off developer

Evanston developer Robert Horner says attending the first downtown planning session earlier this month helped convince him to pull his plans to build a condo tower on the Fountain Square block.

"Seeing the level of distress about tall buildings demonstrated by many residents" had a major impact, Mr. Horner said, "the opposition seemed so intense."

Evanston is ambivalent about development, he added. "Everybody’s looking for a solution to enhance the tax base," especially with nearly $100 million in pension fund debt to make up, "but it doesn’t seem that the city is willing to pay the price."

"To generate the tax base to reduce tax levels you have to have higher density and tall buildings," Mr. Horner said, "you need to utilize the limited land area in town to its maximum potential."

"That may mean some more congestion," he added, "but it’s a relatively small price to pay, because new development is also what brings life to the downtown area and makes it attractive.

The developer said another factor in backing away from the plan for the 37-story tower involved the cost of construction.

"The building design was gorgeous, but because of its design characteristics it would have been expensive to build," he said.

"When we looked at the costs and the prices that would have to be charged for units to recover those costs, it seemed they might be higher than what the market would bear."

Mr. Horner said the long approval process for development projects in Evanston was also a factor in his decision, "The major asset a developer has is his time, and I decided my time could be better spent than on the Fountain Square project."

He said he has just won approval for a 300-unit development along the lakefront in Chicago’s Hyde Park neigbhorhood and is working on another 300-unit project in the West Loop.

Mr. Horner said it’s possible he may revive the Fountain Square project at some point, depending on how the downtown planning process turns out, but that he thinks the chances of that now are less than 50-50.

He said he’s also pulled back from plans to replace an existing rental apartment building on Sheridan Road at South Boulevard in Evanston with a new condo development.

"I believe we could have gotten that approved. The alderman was supportive," Mr. Horner said. "But it’s a market-driven decision. With the current strength of the rental market and the plateauing of condo prices, it seems to make sense to wait."

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