Developer Robert Buono of Smithfield Properties says he’s very surprised by the Plan Commission’s decision to reject his proposal for the former Kendall College site.

R-1 signs dot neighbors lawns across the street from a five-story dorm at the former Kendall College.
Given the emphasis by both Alderman Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, and the neighbors “on a plan that conforms as closely as possible to R1, it was surprising to everyone that the Plan Commission called for a ‘more creative’ approach that presumably would involve R4 zoning to preserve Wesley Hall and build townhouses along Orrington Ave.,” Mr. Buono said.
“Based on two-and-a-half years of discussion with the community, R4 doesn’t seem like something the community would accept,” he said, “but that may change.”
“My thought at the moment is that I don’t know what is going to happen,” he added.
Plan Commission members, in a straw vote at their meeting last Wednesday came out 4 – 1 against the Smithfield Properties plan. They’re scheduled to make a formal recommendation to City Council on the issue next Wednesday.
Most commissioners seem to be just as dissatisfied with neighbors who’ve opposed the project as they are with the project itself.
“I’ve got a problem with what’s going on here,” Commissioner Larry Widmayer said of neighbors’ demands that the entire property be rezoned R1, for single family homes.
“A half-block south of this site we have an R5 neighborhood,” Widmayer said, adding that he found the talk about preserving the purity of a single family area “very elitist.”
“What have citizens living a half block south of you on Sherman Avenue done to destroy your neighborhood?” Mr. Widmayer asked the neighbors. “I find your depiction of multi-family housing despicable.”
Commission Chairman Albert Hunter said he had grown up at 725 Milburn St., a block north of the Kendall site.
“I remember the sheer fact of a diversity of structures in the area, because Kendall was there, and the close proximity to Northwestern and other institutions. That definitely was not an R1 feel. I’m troubled by the ‘purity’ notion here,” Mr. Hunter said.
Looking at the Orrington Avenue streetscape, he said, you see institutions facing one another – Roycemore School on one side, the Kendall buildings on the other. “That does not have the feel of R1 to me,” he added.

Wesley Hall
Commissioner Stuart Opdycke said Wesley Hall, the original 1907 seminary building that became Kendall’s administrative offices, should be the centerpiece of development on that block. “Any proposal that doesn’t incorporate reusing that will not get my vote. Wesley Hall is an important part of our heritage,” Mr. Opdycke said.
During the hearing city staffers said that under R1 zoning Wesley Hall could be declared a unique use, but it could have no more than four units, each with a minimum of 2,000 square feet, unless the zoning code was amended.
“If it requires rezoning to save Wesley Hall, then so be it,” Mr. Opdycke said, “I’m not all caught up in spot zoning.”
“We hoped some creative proposal would come forward for this wonderful opportunity,” Commissioner James Woods said. “From my perspective what we have is not creative. The proposal doesn’t take advantage of the resources available on the site for a sustainable design. It should take advantage, not just of the administration building, but even the 1950s and 1960s Kendall College buildings. And I’m disappointed in the absolute insistence on R1 by the neighbors.”
Associate Commissioner David Galloway said he thought an adaptive reuse of almost all the buildings on the site could have been accomplished – one that could win environmental awards.
He suggested that a better plan would convert Wesley Hall to condos and place townhouses on the rest of the Orrington Avenue frontage, with single family homes on the rest of the site.

Buildings of Roycemore School, across Orrington Avenue from the Kendall property.
Commissioner Hunter said what distinguishes Evanston from other communities “is what I refer to as an ideological commitment to the notion of diversity. That shouldn’t mean just diversity ‘over there,’” he said, “but diversity throughout the fabric of Evanston.”
“That’s what troubles me about the hue and cry for R1,” he added, “An overcommitment to R1 may override some of these other kinds of values. Despite all the signs,” he said, “I don’t think R1 should be the defining question for what to do.”
Commissioner Coleen Burrus said she disagreed with the other commissioners. “I don’t think every neighborhood has to have multi-family zoning. When we look at planning we have to be respectful of how the city was laid out and not mix things too much,” she said.
Commissioner Opdycke urged the neighbors and the developer to “not burn any bridges yet. Press on and I think we can get something done that everybody can live with.”
A representative of the neighbors said they hadn’t started out three or more years ago demanding R1, but that the developer had said he was going to clear-cut the block, and former 1st Ward Alderman Art Newman said suggested that forcing a rezoning to R1 was the only way to gain some control over the project.
Alderman Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, says “I don’t think the neighbors are going to accept townhouses, and I don’t know that the developer wants to maintain Wesley Hall.”
“I think everyone was surprised at the Plan Commission’s direction,” Ald. Wollin said, “I didn’t see that coming, and I don’t think anybody did.”
Bill McClure of 12 Milburn Park, a leader of the neighbors urging R1 zoning for the site, said, “We’ve always asked that the developer preserve Wesley Hall, always suggested that they consider getting density for the project by putting multi-family housing there.”
He added, “We don’t think building townhouses on the property is appropriate, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some possible configuration of something that could work out.”
“The plan Smithfield presented was unacceptable, and we said we prefer single family homes,” Mr. McClure said, “Whether there may be a variation based on some ‘creative’ way of approaching the property as the Plan Commissioners suggested remains to be seen until a specific plan is formulated.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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