An Open Letter to P&D About the Revised Tower Proposal

With the special meeting on the 708 Church Street development looming in the foreground, I wanted to take a brief moment to express why I feel it is the wrong development for Evanston – both for today and for the future.

While the development team has lowered their height, they have only lowered it to the absolute maximum presumably allowed by the recently approved Downtown Plan.  This is troubling for a number of reasons explained below.
Public Benefits
The 385’ maximum height in a special “central core” is presumably for those projects that give numerous public benefits.  In order to reach this maximum height – from the 25 stories designated as a base height, a developer would need to guarantee substantial and specific benefits defined in the new plan.  In looking at the “benefits” the developer is proposing, I only find one benefit that qualifies for any consideration.

  • The million dollar contribution for Fountain Square qualifies, according to the chart on page 111 of the plan.  However, it only qualifies for a maximum 10 percent.  If it were granted the maximum bonus, this would amount to only one additional story of height (10 percent of the maximum 10 stories desired).  Using the approved, but not yet codified, Downtown Plan; the developers could only build up to 26 stories.
  • The Silver LEED certification is misleading and cannot be considered a benefit for bonuses under the approved plan.  In at least three places in the plan (pp.50, 83 and 111) the plan specifically speaks to bonuses given for Gold and Platinum levels.  The intent of the Plan Commission and the Consultants was clear in this regard.  There was unanimous approval by the Commissioners that LEED certification of Basic and Silver should be a requirement and not an item qualified for a bonus.
  • The taxes and TIF generation are highly questionable and should be subject to extensive review before using them as a reason for approval.  I have spoken with several urban planners and experts in TIF and municipal taxing and every one of them questions the “fuzzy” math presented by the development team.
  • The contribution to affordable housing is mandated by ordinance and cannot be considered a benefit for granting allowances.  The new plan is also clear in this point as it specifically calls for on-site affordable housing as the only affordable housing considered for bonuses.

Voodoo Stimulus, False Hopes and Economic Realities
I assume that you read newspapers and watch the news as most educated people do.  You are undoubtedly aware of the financial crisis not only in Evanston, but throughout the country and world.  If you were to read the local blogs, you would get the impression that this one development is going to turn Evanston’s troubled economy around, give us all jobs and give us world peace. 
The problem that I have with blogs is that they represent a skewed view of reality.  Multiple rants by “anonymous” posters (many who post under several identities) should be taken in context.  Likewise, online polls that can be easily manipulated (both behind the scenes and by tech savvy computer-users) should be highly questioned.
While I would like to think that a 35 story retail-condo project will create jobs, boost the economy and solve Evanston’s economic crisis; I am a realist and don’t see things turning around very quickly.
Job Creation: I’ve been reading posts from people who say that this project will create many jobs, right when we need them.  While I concede that a building project creates jobs, I sincerely doubt that any jobs will be created in the next 3-5 years because of this project.  In fact, quite the opposite is likely to happen.  If the project is approved, the vacancies in the existing (and surrounding) buildings will increase at an alarming rate.  No one will want to lease space in an office building that is slated for demolition in the next 5 years.  Those who are currently utilizing the space will find comparable space outside of Evanston.  Their clients will follow.  As businesses in the surrounding area flounder, no new businesses will move in.  Why would they?
Current and Near-Term Tax Revenue: if approved, the tax revenue generated at the site will continue to decrease.  If you remember Sherman Plaza, that site was vacant for years.  The last units are finally getting on the tax rolls just this year.  The “negative-revenue” created by this project is stunning.  Not only will existing office users leave, but so will their clients.
Condo, Condo, Condo: as I am certain you are aware, we have a current glut of condominiums in Evanston.  Last year there were about 700, this year there are only about 460 (mostly due to people pulling their units off the market).  In the last few years, multiple condominium projects have been approved by City Council.  In the last year, nearly every one has come back to the City stating that they can’t sell units and need more time before they begin to build (1881 Oak, Eastwood on Central, Sienna, 1890 Maple).  In nearly every case, we are stuck with a vacant lot.  If every approved project gets built, we will add several hundred more condos to an over-saturated market.   I shudder to think what will happen if we get any more projects like the one at Chicago and Main.
What to Build?
I am strongly opposed to this project.  Not only because of the excessive height.  I am opposed to it because it does not make economic sense for Evanston.  We should be encouraging economic development through businesses moving in to Evanston.  A 10-12 story office building would bring more tax revenue than a 35 story condo development.   In addition to being taxed at a higher rate, office users bring people to downtown that spends money during the day. 
When my company moved out of Evanston, it was because Evanston was too short-sighted to find a way to keep the business in town.  No one could find the office space for an innovative technology company.  In one instant, Evanston lost the business of approximately 100 daily consumers as well as the tax revenue from the business.  Every day, nearly the entire work force would descend on Downtown Evanston for lunch and shopping.  Most of us ate lunch downtown (within walking distance) 5 days a week.  Now, that revenue is gone.   Adding an additional 300 residents will not come anywhere close to the income that could be realized by encouraging office uses in the same footprint.
I could give many more reasons why this project is wrong for Evanston, but I think you get the idea.
I urge you to consider carefully what the developers are “offering” Evanston and would encourage you to vote against the planned development.