Downzoning Emerson is a really bad idea

Four parcels on Emerson and three on Jackson that had been proposed for redevelopment. (Google Maps)

Neighbors freaked out this spring about plans to build new five story apartment buildings on Emerson Street between Wesley and Jackson avenues, and that's led Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, to call for downzoning the area.


Viewpoint


When the Plan Commission takes up the proposal, it should reject it -- at least for the properties that actually front on Emerson.

Here's why.

The original proposal from developer John Domanus called for building 44 two-bedroom condominium units. Under the city's inclusionary housing ordinance, it would have yielded $900,000 for the city's affordable housing fund plus $70,000 more for affordable housing from the demolition tax.


A rendering of the building proposed for the 1400 block of Emerson Street.

Prices for the new units weren't specified. But based on current listing prices for two-bedroom condos for sale in the immediate area, one could estimate a sale price for the proposed condo units, which were to average 1,550 square feet, of around $465,000 each, or about $300 per square foot.

Under the current R5 zoning, five-story building are permitted on the block.

If the neighbors get their wish, and the area is downzoned to R3, then only one and two-family homes would be allowed.

So, let's take a look at what's being built in R3 zones in Evanston today.


A rendering of a two-family home planned for 2106 Darrow Ave. and single-family homes on either side.

Developer Arkady Kats is seeking $747,000 for each of the 2,736 square foot, four-bedroom, five-bath attached homes he's planning to build on a lot at 2106 Darrow Ave., in an R3 zone just north of  the existing home at 2102 Darrow just purchased by Police Chief Demitrous Cook.

Maybe Kats won't get quite what he's asking, but Recorder of Deeds records show he did get $660,000 each for the somewhat similar pair of homes with 2,705 square feet and two-and-a-half baths he built a couple of years ago at 1939-1941 Wesley Ave.


The homes at 1939-1941 Wesley Ave. (Google Maps)

Or there's the pair of large duplexes now under construction in an R3 zone at 1110-1116 Pitner Ave.


1110-1116 Pitner Ave., part of the former Anton's Greenhouse site.

No listing price on those properties in an R3 zone yet, but they're big, so it's unlikely they'll be cheap.

And each of these projects is too small to trigger the inclusionary housing ordinance requirements for on-site affordable housing or a fee-in-lieu contribution to the affordable housing fund.

So, you could have at the Emerson-Jackson site 44 new households in condos prices around $465,000 each plus $900,000 for the city's affordable housing program, or perhaps 12 new households in duplexes priced around $700,000 each.

Which comes closer to being affordable housing?

Which brings the most new residents to the 5th Ward -- an area that needs more residents to support the commercial development, like a new supermarket, that residents say they want?

And, for the tract with the second lowest median household income among Evanston's 18 cenus tracts, adding more middle income residents would also help provide the economic basis to support more commercial activity.

Of course there's another potential outcome if the Emerson property is downzoned.

Domanus says he'd offered the current owners an average of $400,000 for each building lot. Now that he's pulled out in the face of the neighbors' opposition, the current property owners have the land back on the market at an average price of $500,000 per lot.

Lots sold for redevelopment for townhouses will likely only bring a small fraction of those prices, and the current owners may decide to keep running their existing sad-looking rental properties.


1413 Emerson St.

That would please people who oppose all change in the community, but it's hardly in the best interest of the neighborhood as a whole.

The properties on the 1900 block of Wesley north of the alley have for the most part shifted from rentals to owner-occupied homes in recent years. It may make sense to downzone those properties to R3, if that's what the homeowners really want.

The properties on the 1900 block of Jackson north of the alley are still mostly rentals and there the case for downzoning seems less clear.

But on Emerson, a heavily-traveled street which already has some mid-rise and high-rise development, downzoning would only stifle an opportunity to bring new residents and vitality to the 5th Ward.

Elsewhere in Evanston, notably along sections of Ridge Avenue and Chicago Avenue, mid-rise and higher apartment and condominium buildings co-exist with single family homes across an alley. They could do so on this section of Emerson as well.

Related stories

Alderman to seek Emerson rezoning (5/9/19)

Neighbors attack Emerson apartment plans (3/29/19)

44 condo units proposed on near west side (11/29/18)

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Comments

Your characterization of the

Your characterization of the Domanus development is misinformed and misleading. Initially Domanus planned on condominium units, but upon evaluating the condo market in Evanston he decided condos would not be economically feasible and adapted his plan to two five-story rental buildings. The Evanston Wesley Avenue Block Club met with Domanus and he explained the two buildings together would have had approximately 83 units for rent, with only 8 units allotted for affordable housing. The proposed starting rents were not in a range to attract low-income or long-term renters at $1,700 for a one bedroom, $2,200 for a two bedroom. The Domanus development was designed for short-term transient renters who are less likely to feel vested in the community.

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I question your claim that the Domanus development would have yielded $900,000 for the city's affordable housing fund. According to Domanus his development would have yielded 8 affordable units out of 83--the minimum requirement to avoid paying the inclusionary housing penalty. There were more affordable housing units on the lots before the proposed development than there would have been after construction. And the demolition tax will be collected if and when the properties are sold for development regardless of downzoning. Claiming that the Domanus development on Emerson would have been a boon for affordable housing is simply not true.

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You claim our neighborhood needs more residents to support commercial development. But just because Emerson is a heavily traveled street does not mean the neighborhoods north and south of it on Wesley and Jackson can support more density. I own and live in a home south of the alley on the 1900 block of Wesley, and I can say with certainty that we don’t need more density on our particular block. Both Wesley and Jackson are one-way streets, and Jackson is particularly narrow. The alley that runs beside my house would become a parking thoroughfare for any development on Emerson. More density in that particular location will create traffic and parking nightmares for current residents and will further complicate traffic in front of the fire station at Wesley and Emerson. The neighborhood is simply not structured to handle that level of congestion.

My neighbors and I don’t oppose change in the community, and we do want what’s in the best interest of the neighborhood as a whole. I’m pro-development and would be thrilled if the “existing sad-looking rental properties” as you called them were renovated or replaced with housing that would attract new residents or current residents of the 5th Ward wanting to own in their neighborhood. But a glut of upscale apartments for short-term predominantly student renters is not what this neighborhood and particularly my block needs.

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You say that “elsewhere in Evanston... mid-rise and higher apartment and condominium buildings co-exist with single family homes across an alley.” But the properties along Emerson would not be across an alley from me and the homeowner next door. They’d be pressed up against our properties to the west, right in our backyard, and we would be living in the shadow of these gigantic buildings. No homeowner wants a five-story building encroaching on their property. The homeowners south of Emerson on Wesley are protected by reasonable zoning from the threat of such large development. Homeowners on Wesley north of Emerson deserve the same protection. Single-family homes, townhouses, and three-story walk-ups are a much more appropriate fit for this area.

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You claim “downzoning would only stifle an opportunity to bring new residents and vitality to the 5th Ward.” I disagree--my spouse and I are an example of the exact opposite being true. We recently moved to the 5th Ward because of the suburban feel of this neighborhood; increasing density, traffic, and noise will not make it a better or more attractive place for us to live.  Quite the opposite—R5-scale density is a threat to what makes our neighborhood an Evanston gem.

When Domanus recently approached us to sell our house to be part of their huge development, they pitched the idea as “bringing Lincoln Park to Evanston.” There’s a reason my neighbors and I aren’t living in the thick of Lincoln Park, a reason several of us migrated to Evanston from Chicago. Turning the 5th Ward into Evanston’s “Lincoln Park” will not automatically bring vitality to the 5th Ward and will certainly not attract new residents like me. Buying in this neighborhood was an investment my neighbors, my spouse and I made in the 5th Ward, and we don’t want to see that investment squandered by developers wanting to maximize profits without considering the long-term ramifications of overscale construction.

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After much research and debate, the West Evanston Master Plan approved by the city in 2007 recommended reducing the maximum height allowance in this neighborhood to 35 feet. Unfortunately that recommendation was not adopted and the city hasn’t completed any follow-up studies since 2007 regarding the overall development vision for the Emerson Corridor between Ridge and McCormick. That our neighborhood is still zoned for five-story buildings is an oversight after the recommendations made in the 2007 neighborhood plan, and speaks more to the neglect of the 5th Ward than to its current needs. Re-evaluation and rezoning are necessary as soon as possible to assure that any new development will maintain the character of our great neighborhood.

Emerson Jackson

Hi Chris,

Your comment is inaccurate.

My references to the original Domanus proposal are accurate.

Had Domanus gone instead with a 83-unit rental development, he would have been required to provide eight units on site, which would likely have had an equivalent economic value of about $250,000 per unit or roughly $2 million in total benefit to the city's affordable housing needs. That also would have been a much better solution for he city's needs than your proposal, which would likely stifle all new development in the area -- other than possibly duplexes in the $700,000 range per unit -- which would be the least affordable prospect.

Your characterization of renters as being undesirable members of the community is biased and discriminatory and reflects your distain for the 45 percent of Evanstonians who currently are renters.

-- Bill