By Karen Berkowitz, Pioneer Press
Highland Park city council members agreed Monday to allow a six-story apartment building at Central and McGovern avenues in the downtown area, even though the building deviates from a key requirement of the city’s new downtown zoning rules.
McGovern Flats is the first petition to be considered under long-debated zoning changes that were adopted by the council in April. The changes, intended to spark redevelopment, allow multi-family buildings of greater height and density than the city had previously permitted.
The council voted unanimously in favor of developer Greg Merdinger’s proposal to construct a 74-unit building of one- and two-bedroom apartments on a one-acre site assembled from five parcels, including a Clark gasoline station at the southwest corner of Central and McGovern and four single-family homes.
Merdinger hopes to break ground on the building in November and be ready to market the units during the prime spring rental season in 2017.
City zoning required that the fifth and sixth floors of the building be set back 15 feet from the lower floors on both the Central and McGovern sides of the L-shaped building to reduce the appearance of mass. The city refers to the requirement as a “step back.” Merdinger and his architect, Joe Pasquinelli, maintained during plan commission hearings that the “step back” would drastically reduce the amount of living space in the street-side apartments on the fifth and sixth floor and render the building unworkable.
The development team offered several design changes to soften the appearance, including the addition of a rooftop terrace and party room at the corner of McGovern and Central. Smaller
Eleven apartments in the building — six one-bedroom apartments and five two-bedroom units — will be set aside as affordable housing, the largest number of new affordable units since Highland Park adopted its inclusionary zoning ordinance in 2003. The inclusionary zoning ordinance requires that 20 percent of dwelling units in new or converted multi-family buildings qualify as affordable housing. In the case of a rental building, the affordable units are reserved for renters earning no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income, adjusted for household size. Under the current formula, income would be capped at $31,920 for a single person or $41,040 for a three-person household.
Rental rates for the affordable units are set so tenants are not paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. To offset the financial impact of Highland Park’s affordable housing requirement, Merdinger was granted a density bonus that allowed more market-rate units than would otherwise have been permitted.
Merdinger has said he expects the prime markets for the units will be empty-nesters ages 55 and older who want to maintain a North Shore residence without the hassles of home ownership, and young families looking to rent on the North Shore.
Councilman Anthony Blumberg said the inclusion of the affordable units, which will be evenly dispersed throughout the building, weighed into his decision to vote in favor of the project.
“As somebody who has generally opposed taller and bulkier buildings, and had a lot of concern about the (step backs) — particularly in the very first development — I have wrestled with this a lot,” Blumberg said before the vote.
“The fact that you have met 100 percent of our requirements for affordable housing, that you have created a tremendous amount of green space that is an amenity for everybody in the building and that there is a single general entrance for everybody” were factors in the building’s favor, Blumberg said.
He noted the developer also have made some design changes to address concerns about mass.
Housing advocates affiliated with Open Communities urged the city to address the needs of the renters who will be displaced when the single-family homes at 1710, 1716 and 1724 McGovern and 774 Central avenues are torn down to make room for the development.
“You have done a traffic impact study. You have done a fiscal impact study. But we haven’t done a human impact study,” said David Borris, a Highland Park resident who is president of Chicago Area Peace Action. “There are families that are living there. To go ahead and displace those families with a month’s notice, two or three month’s notice with no provision at all for where they are going to go, or how we are going to keep these Highland Park families within our community is, I think, an oversight.”
Property owner Jeffrey Eiserman said Tuesday that only four of 11 tenants are still living in the homes and they are on month-to-month leases. He said they would be given at least 90 days notice of the need to vacate the premises by Nov. 1. He also plans to provide a free month of rent in addition to returning their security deposits.