By Bob Seidenberg
A mixed-income housing project planned to be built on what is now a city-owned parking lot at 504-14 South Boulevard is moving forward, with the Council member who represents the Ward responding sharply to a suggestion that affected residents have been left out of the project.
Evanston City Council members voted 7-1 at their Feb. 28 meeting to authorize city officials to move forward with Cleveland-based PIRHL Developers, LLC. The company plans to develop the South Boulevard site, which currently includes the city’s Parking Lot 1, as well as an adjacent property to the west owned by the Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC) and containing four townhouse units.
The proposal, a number of years in the making, represents the city’s biggest step to use its own assets, such as this parking lot, for other purposes.
PIRHL’s proposal calls for construction of a five-story building with 60 apartments, a second-floor amenity space for residents, a playground, a fitness room and community flex space, Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Manager, said in a memo to Council members.
In addition, he said, the proposal includes a strong affordable-housing component. PIHRL is working with the HACC to replace the four existing HACC units and could include up to 18 units for extremely low-income households.
During Council discussion, Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, expressed concern about comments that Council members had received from residents in the area, indicating that they felt “disregarded” on the project.
She alluded in her remarks to “a very, very participatory member of our community who’s a commissioner” but did not name the person.
Kelly, the lone Council member to vote against moving the proposal forward, observed, “that sort of the core tenet of a successful development in a city or neighborhood really is that community participation and conversation and input.”
She suggested to long-time Council member Melissa Wynne, in whose Third Ward the site is located, “This will be much more successful going forward to first have a community meeting to discuss the C1A zoning [the zoning classification in the area] and everything else, because clearly that’s what the residents around there seem to be feeling — that there have not been effective community meetings around this.”
Resents ‘lying’ remarks
Wynne asked Mayor Daniel Biss, convening the meeting, for a chance to respond to Kelly.
She maintained the residents that Kelly referred to “have been noticed [received notices of meetings] on every single development that we have had here,” she said.
“I’ve had multiple community meetings,” she said. “And, Clare, I’m happy to give you the details of how many people met with me and the number of times we met with people – 40, 50 people, the Courts of Evanston [another development] was there.”
Further, she said, “I really, really resent people arriving at our public comment and lying, just lying.”
The proposal has a long way to go with numerous opportunities for input, she said, including hearings before the city’s Design & Project Review Committee and its Land Use Commission.
On the project itself, Wynne said, “What I have also heard from the community is a tremendous support for this type of affordable housing on an asset [the city parking lot] that has sat there unused. There are approximately 50 parking spaces there. We have marketed them in every possible way to get people to fill them,” she said.
She apologized for the strength of her remarks.
“I’m just really frustrated,” she said. “This is five years in the process. There have been any number of community meetings. To have somebody announce — basically lying to us — is really disappointing.”
In citizen comment, though, several speakers criticized the proposal. One was Nick Korzeniowski, Wynne’s opponent in the 2021 municipal election, which she handily won.
Korzeniowski noted that he has been a big advocate for tackling the affordability crisis in Evanston, “but there needs to be something behind it,” he told Council members. “And the proposal before you tonight I don’t think rises to that demand.”
He said the plan’s call for 52 of the 60 units to be available to families earning 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI) “sounds wonderful on paper, but you can check Fannie Mae [the government-sponsored company which manages loans], and that means you’re talking about $52,000 a year.” He said he believes the average Evanston income is less than that.
As for parking, he said, “Any time somebody says it’s underused, that doesn’t mean that the use it is getting is not a lifeline for the people in that immediate area. Not to mention there’s already an entire street parking situation that this is going to make worse.”
Along with those concerns, he told Council members, “There will be folks displaced by this. There’s no assurance in the proposal that they’re going to be taken care of.”
“Those are seniors; those are displaced folks,” he said. “They’re Third Ward residents, and there’s nothing here to guarantee their safety.”
Several other longtime residents also spoke at the meeting, held both as a virtual and an in-person one.
Better communication needed
Brian Knowles, who said he lives across the street from the proposed project, said he represents four generations of his family, all living on South Boulevard.
He asked the Council to deny the proposal and “slow the process down to get more community input, involvement.”
“I understand at this point it’s likely to go through, but if it does, we need better communication about what’s going on with the project, the process,” he told Council members.
Doree Stein, another speaker, said she has lived in the neighborhood most of her life and across from the parking lot since 1984.
“Where are we going to go?” she asked about the development.
“Where are all these children going to go, and where are we going to go?
“We’ve lived there for years. Some of the people that lived in the Cook County Housing Development actually died there. “Why is our neighborhood being taken?” she asked.
“Why are we being displaced? We did a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act request], and we never got answers to our questions. And we asked for copies of the paperwork that we were supposedly shown and never produced.”
‘A really great step’: Connections for the Homeless
Speaking at the meeting, Nancy Guzman, Director of Development for the Housing Authority of Cook County, told Council members that organization did hold an “early meeting,” on July 14 last year, informing the residents about the project with the city.
She said officials also used that opportunity to explain to the residents how to obtain vouchers that could be used to find alternative subsidized housing in Evanston and elsewhere.
More importantly, she said, the current residents will be given priority in housing at the new development if they wish.
During citizen comment, Sue Loellbach, Manager of Advocacy for Evanston-based Connections for the Homeless, congratulated the city for “moving forward with this development of 48 new units of affordable housing in a 60-unit building on city-owned land. This is a really great step,” she said.
“We would like to see 100% affordable,” she told officials, “but we know that even with 60% and 50% affordability, that is really, really hard to do. There are very few developers doing that. And there are no developers developing housing just for 30% under [AMI] so this is a really great step.”