A Citizen's Perspective on 708 Church

Members of the Evanston City Council:

I hope that each of you who receive this take the time to read it. I am not writing this as a member of any community group, although I am relatively certain that many would agree. I am writing this as a plea from a citizen of Evanston who is deeply concerned about the current direction of a city that I love. I am writing this as a taxpayer who is often outraged at the time and money that is wasted on decisions that should be relatively easy.

Let me make something clear from the start, I don’t relish spending my time in city meetings. However, like many others, I feel that at times it is an absolute necessity. Personally, I would much rather stay at home and enjoy what I have worked so hard to achieve, or maybe even get a chance to visit downtown Evanston. Instead, I feel compelled to keep an eye on where “my” money is spent.

Tonight at the Economic Development Committee, I thought I heard the sound of $20,000 being flushed down the toilet. I’m sorry if that offends anybody. But, I really don’t understand the fascination with a proposed building that seems to violate every conceivable zoning law; has been “fast-tracked” through the approval process during a time when we are paying hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to determine what WE want in OUR downtown; has been widely panned by thousands of citizens as well as many well-respected community groups; is totally out of context with the surrounding area; and gives nothing to the citizens except for maybe the feeling of another sticky finger in our wallets.

What is wrong with this picture? How about, what is wrong with this proposal?

To your average citizen, the answer is pretty simple. It offers everything to a developer while at the same time offering nothing to your average citizen. Let me take a moment and share my thoughts on what some of the issues are.

Context. It doesn’t respect the Hahn building or ANY other building in downtown. The developers call it “iconic” – but what it really says to me is domination, greed and egotism. All through the Plan Commission hearings, the mantra of the developer was how the base of the tower respected the neighboring buildings, all the time trying to minimize the several hundred feet of excess height. It’s really not very tall – if you don’t look up.

Economics. I don’t pretend to have an economics degree but the last I heard we were getting close to a recession. The housing market is tanking and we have an abundant supply of condominiums in town. Is anybody else paying attention to the number of “approved” condo projects that are on hold in this town?? Rozak got half of his project built and demand tanked; now he wants to change his proposal. King got a 2 for 1 deal on the Northern edge of the Research Park and has now successfully pleaded for a second extension due to insufficient demand. The Eastwood on Central has the same problem… build it and they will come – oops, I guess there wasn’t a huge demand for our product. How about the Kendall property? See any housing going up?

The developer will tell you what you want to hear. Consultants will tell you what they think you want to hear, depends on who is paying their bills. If Sherman Plaza is any gauge of the future, we’re in for a long period of net losses before any substantial revenue comes from this project. Why does this project offer LESS retail space than currently exists on the property?? Retail and office uses pay at a much greater tax rate. Why can’t the developer devote a couple of floors to office space??

All through the early meetings on the project we heard that the project would benefit the city and wouldn’t cost us a thing. Follow the money. We’ll save the Hahn building from “evil” developers (if you will please give us a few million dollars) – give me a break. The Hahn building was never in any danger except from the looming tower next door. From where I am sitting, the proposed building would cost Evanston more than it could ever give in return (both aesthetically and financially).

Public Benefits. Where are they? Preserving the Hahn building at taxpayer expense? Buying zoning allowances through mandated affordable housing contributions? Paying a premium to build a “green” building – while being able to recoup those costs when selling? An iconic building?

When Mather wanted to exceed the zoning laws, they actually had to agree to tangible and significant public benefits ($30 million in financial assistance, guarantee of taxes to Evanston, annual easement fee of $125,000 for a tunnel, covenant on both gardens as open space – including one open to public, return of on-street parking, additional setbacks). It seems like we have everything backwards for “this” developer. Instead of what will you give us, we seem to be saying what can we give you.

My opposition to this proposal is not on a single issue, but MANY tangible issues that when put together make this particular project wrong for this site and wrong for the City of Evanston.

I heard comments tonight that the property is “in play” and will be developed. GOOD! However, it needs to be a development that makes sense for EVANSTON. Everyone knows that the property will eventually get developed and businesses will have to move. However, why are we jumping at a proposal that removes revenue generating office space, offers less retail space, increases the number of condos in a failing housing market, and generally makes a mockery of the zoning laws?

Lastly, I want to remind you of what was requested of the developers when they asked to come back with a revised proposal. They were told NOT to come back with simply a shorter building, but to come back with a shorter building and some tangible public benefits. What changed? The building is shorter (still about 15-stories taller than the tallest in town); is still three times the FAR of any recent downtown development; still offers no significant benefits; still has only two loading berths instead of five; would still generate about 600 daily trips in an already congested downtown; and is still totally out of sync with downtown Evanston.

There are a plethora of reasons not to approve this project (I barely touched the surface). I hope that each of you has a sense of the utter frustration of many of your constituents. This is the wrong project, at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

Christopher J. Ernst