Here’s a recap of our live coverage of tonight’s Evanston City Council Planning and Development Committee meeting.

The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m.

A packet with tonight’s agenda items is available online

The meeting is called to order at 7:18 p.m. 

Minutes from Nov. 11 meeting are approved.

Only one item for consideration: extending time by three years for 708 Church St. developers to begin construction. 

Community and Development Director Mark Muenzer provides quick overview of planned development:

Approved on March 23, 2009, in a 6-3 vote. Proposed height is about 35 floors. 218 dwelling units, 18,000 square feet of office and retail space on first floor, with 271 off-street parking spaces.

If approved and extended, subsequent property owner would have the same deadline if it were extended. 

They request extension until Dec. 31, 2016. Must be approved by a two-thirds majority if it gets to City Council.

Renderings of proposed project is displayed on projector screen. 

Other planned developments of recent note: Since 2009 only Walgreens and Trader Joes sites on Chicago Avenue. Three developments are in the pipeline for early to mid-2014, says Muenzer. New interest in development with improved economy. 

From 2003-08, city of Evanston saw 22 planned developments approved, 12 were granted extensions for various reasons, and only one of those has yet to be completed and is currently under construction at 1890 Maple Ave.

Two extended planned developments brought significant units into downtown Evanston, he says. 

When looking at PD history, two years is the average extension time.

The PD at 1720 Maple was 259 feet, Sherman, 236 feet and Park Evanston 218 feet. The tallest building is at 277 feet. 

Background discussion complete.

Alderman Ann Rainey asks about extensions for other PDs. Were they pure and simple or other nuances requested?

There were some nuances, some were pure, though. From reading list that’s what I’ve seen, Muenzer says.

I went into the minutes all the way back to 2006, because the agenda notations were pretty similar… In not one case of a pure extension, not one was, regardless of unanimous vote or not, it is not for our staff to determine a close call, just give us the facts and let us fight it out, not one of the extensions ever had a reference from our staff, any way shape or form of the requirement of a two-thirds vote. If I missed one I’d appreciate staff showing that to me, says Rainey.

I found it unsual we were being required to have a two-thirds vote, she says. Vote is going to be close but that should have not bearing. Absolutely a two-thirds vote on PD passed for first time… but this is simply an extension of all the work, time and effort put into this particular issue, Rainey says. Challenges two-thirds vote, she says. 

Audience grumbles. 

The number of extensions we’ve given, while we’re not bound by that action, that to not give an extension in this case is really prejudicial and shows a lot of bias, Rainey says. We don’t know this project can be built, all the developer is asking us to do is give us a shot at a couple extra years. 

Normally a PD is supposed to apply for buolding permit within a year? They really did get an extension of four years when approved in 2009, says Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st ward.

Technically yes, Muenzer says.

From time this project originally came to our staff from how long did it take from that time to the time the council actually passed approval of PD, do you know? Asks Rainey.

I believe it was two years, Muenzer says.

This was the longest, dredged out planned development I can remember, Rainey says. Have we ever denied extension in last five years?

Not that I’m aware of, Muenzer says.

This is an approval of an extension of time for them to start construction — for them to apply for construction permit, Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd ward, clarifies. Not approval of the plan itself. 

They can’t build a building without financing. Maybe it will be a different building, we don’t know, says Rainey.

Citizen comment begins, with list created from last regularly scheduled meeting. 

Martin Kantor, 807 Davis: I’m a resident of downtown Evanston. Moved from Lincoln Park to southeast Evanston in 1970s. Moved because mansion was developed into twin 40-story towers. Moved here to move to a college town… At that time tallest building was Orrington Hotel or Carlson Building… To be blunt this [PD] sticks out like a sore thumb. 

To put a building that is that massive on that site and that density for that site is a mistake, he says. Obviously it would have negative impact on vehicle traffic…construction on top of Church and Davis Street construction will be devastating for businesses. 

Asks council to vote against project. Receives a round of applause from audience members. 

Bonnie O., 807 Davis (Sherman Plaza), here accidentally, she says. In my 60 years in U.S. this is the first time I am addressing a body like this. As I pondered about it this evening, thought about father who was a judge and lawyer, passed away in Korea, taught her not to shrink from righting wrong. Asks council to vote against plan to build skyscraper higher than 35 or possibly 50 stories in downtown Evanston. 

Beyond my personal situation… consider preserving Evanston’s beauty and unique character as you vote tonight. Implore you to reach down to your heart and guts and think about what skyscraper will do to Evanston. 

I think this skyscaprer will create intangible, tangible adversarial effects, she says. Wind-tunnel affect, traffic identified as concerns.

Wynne asks her to finish in next 10 seconds, says many more need to speak.

Asks council to preserve beautiful city. Round of applause from audience members. 

We’re not the final say, the City Council is the final say, Wynne says.

Rita Morton, lives in apartment on corner of Davis and Sherman, if approval is granted we will effectively lose the natural light from the east and the tower would loom intrusively across the width of my apartment… That building is… in non-compliance to city zoning laws. It is far denser and height excessive by zoning standards outlined by law, she says. Says PD is too tall, not enough parking spaces, and loading berths not enough.

This is a partial list of non-compliancy on the developers part, she says. 

Mostly what drew me here was livability of vibrant community…pretentious overbuilding and inappropriate materialism doesn’t draw attention here…those aspects don’t matter because here we can feel the comfort of livability… Each member of board identified as appreciating predecessors dedication to a fine city… Please vote for what truly matters… she says. 

Lynn Grant, 807 Davis, new resident of Sherman Plaza, only lived here for 15 months…because of the way the economy has gone in the past two or three years we noticed being here the past 15 months a lot of biz seem to be suffering and even in last 6 months noticed biz going out of business in downtown Evanston, and a lot of vacant biz in downtown. Not sold on idea of a high rise going up across the street, she says. 

A lot of small biz in Evanston community will go out of biz if a lot of chain companies come to downtown Evanston, she says. She says the building is not a good idea. Receives applause from audience. 

Arthur Altman (spoke last meeting, too), asks if Alderman would want this building in their ward. Think of all citizens of Evanston and not those just in your ward, he says to council. This sets precedent; this building exceeds height limit… Before you know it we’ll have another Willis Tower here. 

Alderman Dolores Holmes, 5th ward, asks that people be reminded this is not an matter of approving the PD, because that has already happened. 

Another resident says he moved here recently because of Evanston’s nice downtown, and the choice was between Highland Park and Evanston… At the same time this extension request came up was article about Highland Park planners considering changes to increase max allowed number of floors in a building from three to six, he says. We are considering here an extension of a building of 35-floors. Wonders if there is something Highland Park knows better. 

Says building will make traffic worse and add to “the glut of condos” in Evanston. This is not a good idea for so many reasons, he says. 

Hank Goldman, 807 Davis, speaking tonight in strong opposition to any extension, he says. Seems like only yesterday, or five years ago, debating proposal… says five years was unprecedented and now asking for another unprecedented three years. Says it’s time to close books on bad deal for city. 

If we think developers are doing this due to love of Evanston…project is driven by pure profit motives and nothing else. Asks committee and council to deny extension. 

Southeast Evanston Association representative reads statement from organization. Statement says deadline for starting this project should not be extended. Developers request zoning in excess of anything else requested… building only reflects profit motives of the developers. 

City council should focus on respecting and upholding zoning board rules, statement says. Concerns about traffic flow and load berths not addressed, proposed development provides less retail space than currently exists and not office space. Have a negative impact on city and downtown health, statement says. Says many problems with this development have not gone away, urges committee to reject project and extensions. “It was a bad project in 2008, is a bad project in 2013 and will be a bad project in 2016.”

Another resident says when City Council approved development originally, developer granted extraordinary site allowances and exceptions, she says. She says they were granted on long list of public benefit, she says. With TIF expiring in 2017-18, there will be virtually no tax revenues going into that incremental tax revenue fund, which was a major benefit cited in initial approval, she says. 

Those benefits may not be relevant in overall scheme of things… City isn’t in a position to renegotiate terms, or update revenue projections of what city could expect to receive…says city would be better served by not extending permit. Says developer could always reapply with something that makes better sense for city and taxing districts. 

Glenn Gray, 807 Davis, asks commitee why they are here, why are all of us here. He says the answer is we all care, and care for community and want it to be a better place… Six years ago we were told about magnificent redevelopment, new Fountain Square park, outdoor cafes, trees, etc…that was the bait displayed in illegal meeting behind closed doors to Aldermen by Mr. Anderson. 

Today we have the switch…calls it ugly and points to faults others pointed out already…and says not new Fountain Square Park…what we have is a good old bait and switch by Mr. Anderson, he says.

By the time people use it, design technology will be 15-16 years old, he says. 

Wynne asks him to wrap up. 

He asks why not have modern design to fit current needs for downtown Evanston. Simply ask Anderson to build a better building, he says. Says we will have oldest new building in history. Vote against extensions, he urges committee. Receives applause.

Guy Mailer, 807 Davis, the question is what should we build, lets have transparency and what is best for Evanston. Wife and I moved back after 15 years overseas…can’t see a 35-story tower, allegedly a condo, can’t sell them and guess what, it’s apartments…what’s the rush? We need transparency and what’s best. What’s the rush? They’ve had five years and they haven’t done anything.

It’s the most important parcel of land within the city, says will define tone and tenor of next generations. Says he’d prefer an office building on the site to get “real jobs and real money.”

Mike V. says building that tall is destructive to Evanston’s downtown. Says it is merely a monument to the developers. Says site should be reserved for a use that benefits all of Evanston, not an out-of-town developer. Worried about ability to fight fires, says buildings of this height require special equipment, training and infrastructure. No one has really addressed this concern, he says. 

Reminds council of questionable things going on at time it was approved… says project brought to commission that same time new zoning discussed as part of the downtown plan… Asks commitee to deny request for extension and thereby “cleanse the record.”

Alan Drebin, 807 Davis, professor of accounting Kellogg School of Management, says it is a bad business decision… It’s essentially heads they win and tails we lose, not a good business decision. 

Says city ordinance provides that no PD of special use should be valid of period of more than one year unless granted by City Council. Says extension of ordinance passed three councils ago…why don’t we respect decision of council that passed this ordinance, he says. References ordinances in regards to height as well… if we grant this then developers will have strangle hold on city, he says. Receives applause from audience. 

Tom Snyder, fan of Evanston, graduated from NU 51 years ago, and left state but returned five years ago as retired university administrator. Says he has vested interest in future of Evanston, a marketing consultant and tutors at-risk student in Evanston. 

This is a seven-year old at least plan, and Evanston, due to your successes you’ve changed the environment, can you defend all impact studies that need to be done on brand new building that have not been done on this building, he says… Urges committee to reject request.

Ken Green, 522 Church St., moved here from St. Louis in 2007… this approval givena  few years back contained a record number of variances you have strong reason to say you don’t want to continue variances. Says there was an election, a “cleansing of councils,” shortly after PD was approved.

Says he is retired banker…says it’s a shoestring operation killing the city’s revenue. Not only did you give a longer period than anyone before, now they are asking for longer extension than any granted, he says. 

Another resident argues that timing of initial approval put it on top of housing crash, unfortunate for developer but that’s how things are…says more units here now and demand for that has gone down. For that reason I would encourage you not to extend this operation, she says. 

Citizen comment concluded. 

David Reifman, represents applicant…asks Tim Anderson to address committee. 

Audience calls for 3 minute limit.

Tim Anderson, owner of Docus Development: Says invested 320 million in projects in Evanston. Says he stands by track record of delivering quality projects to Evanston. Purchased hole at 1717 Ridge, worked with community, Alderman and Council resulting in highest valued suburban apartment building in Chicagoland, he says. 

Since time PD was approved, we’ve experience worst real estate crash since great depression. Due to downturn needs additional time to start project already approved by City Council. 

Says he is asking for approval of extension to complete project and “city can reap public benefits originally envisioned.”

Says merits and benefits of PD already vetted and approved by City Council. 

Says he is asking to be treated the way other developers have who have asked for PD extensions.

David Reifman: Says he has been before CC on many, many extensions. Says he is not aware of single project where CC has denied extension in similar circumstances. 

This is the first extension request for this particular project he says.

City staff has advised council that two-thirds vote required for extension, says he is not aware of precedent. Says for the first time staff have seen fit to call out three unrelated provisions as justification for two-thirds vote…The only place in the ordinance for a two-third vote is for site development allowance, not for an extension, he says. 

Wynne says this is not relevant to this decision and should be held for City Council. 

Focus does not have ownership of property, revealed after questioned by Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th ward. 

Wilson chastises audience for calling out “three minutes.”

Ordinance authorizing contract purchaser to develop property, Wilson says, and someone else owns it?

Our client still owns it, says Reifman… the current extension is with knowlege of ownership to keep it in place under their authority, so to speak. 

I believe understanding if the matter is extended, contract to purchase is reinstated, Reifman says.

If Focus develops who owns it? Wilson asks

Focus would ultimately purchase it, Reifman says. Says owners are not always the entities who are applicants.

People are very frustrated, myself included with no visible progress made with development of property, Wilson says… The ordinance granted the LLC as the contract purchaser with rights to do these things, presumably the LLC would have option for five years, duration of the ordinance. My concern is nothing happened, and I don’t have assurance [something will]. 

Says he can’t picture 218 condo units in this building, Wilson says.

Reifman: Time has been extended, developers reevaluating within framework of existing approval… says there is some desire to revisit market conditions for possible tweaks. 

Wilson says there are people interested in developing other parcels in downtown area..says for five years people interested in doing something else have been operating under cloud of uncertainty… Says he thinks we need to devise a revised plan…Says a straight extension for something that probably won’t happen [won’t solve the issue]

Reifman: cites other PDs where extension granted and new plans done within framework of extension… asking to be treated no differently… says CC would have opportunity to review changes.

This is the longest time period we ever gave when council approved it, Wynne says. Says extensions granted for other PDs were not three years.

Reifman disagrees, says several were granted for three years… Says people came in with best guess of needed timeframes and extension was granted…Says the only reason we are here is for unforeseeable market crisis…

Who does own the property right now? Alderman Jane Grover, 7th ward, asks. 

It is an existing land trust, Reifman says. Does not include Fountain Square building. 

I agree we shouldn’t be developing merits of PD approved five years ago, Grover says… The question before us is whether to extend the time…

We have indeed granted pretty routinely requests for extension of time on PDs, multiple and  retroactively even, Grover says… Then again original timeframe for all of those was not five years. Says entire length of time — 8 years — at outer edges of what has been granted before. Looking at 5.5 years before this project is complete… In five intervening years some of those public benefits terms grown stale, landscape in downtown Evanston has changed… says we have fewer vacancies than five years ago…thanks to TIFs and so forth, and good attention to how we manage development.

This is an extraordinary project, extraordinary parcel in downtown Evanston…there will be some development there, I’m rather certain, Grover says. 

This is also an extraordinary request for time and requires extraordinary reason for why three years is needed to make this project come to life, she says. 

What has been deterent to making this happen in the last five years, Grover asks, rhetorically. 

When this project came forward just about the time some of us thinking of running for council, everyone vacated the 708 Church St. building, says Fiske. 

I’m a little bit uncomfortable with going forward with a project, as I hear it now, you don’t have any legal interest in the property right now? You are no longer contract purchaser? Fiske says.

That’s true, says Reifman, but says they have acknowledgement of owners. 

They could easily say no, is that also correct? Fiske asks.

We have a longterm working relationship with ownership, Anderson says.

Why no extension? Fiske asks.

Says there wasn’t a point to keep contract open in economic downturn, Anderson says. They agreed to revisit contract.

What happens if granted three-year extension, go back to owners and say renew negotiations and have lease terminations by what date? Fiske asks

We’d reengage contract purchase and go through planning process to reestablish project, Anderson says.

I really don’t feel comfortable going forward with this at all without understanding that this property continues to be for sale, Fiske says. 

Additionally, this building is totally out of date, changed economic goals and strategies since, and issue played large part in campaigns for many on the council now, Fiske says.

As private citizen I saw such large concern with amount of variances granted for this building…says she disagreed with council decision in 2009. Says it would be wrong to go forward with this at this time. 

Hopes new building would provide class B and A office space and affordable retail, she says… Says we can achieve something we can all be proud of, not just a building stuck on the end of the block that doesn’t serve anyone well except for the developer, Fiske says. Receive applause.

My biggest concern…it is downtown…the unknowns of the past five years extended three years could be very damaging if unknowns haven’t already hurt development. Says voted for other PD extensions, says he thought they were good votes at the time, but looking back I don’t see it as precendent but as trend we need to reexamine. Not sure it is one of our best practices. Says he will be reluctant to vote for extensions without sign of progress in the future. Says he thinks committee should deny request. 

Grover moves to advance without recommendation from the committee, “so we can have the discussion with full council, because that’s where it counts.”

Moves to council without recommendation, vote 6-1. Fiske opposes. 

Meeting adjourns at 8:52 p.m. 

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