By Kathy Routliffe, April 14, 2015
While some Wilmette officials have enthusiastically endorsed the much-touted luxury apartment-retail complex M&R Development wants to build at the former 611 Green Bay Road property, not everyone shares that enthusiasm.
Village plan commission members, meeting April 8 to complete their review of M&R’s request for planned unit development approval, instead deadlocked over whether to approve or deny it.
The deadlock – born of some commissioners’ insistence that M&R hasn’t provided nearly enough public good to balance its project’s size, density and potential neighborhood-character-changing nature – means the case goes to Wilmette village trustees without the thumbs up developers wanted.
It also goes to the board with some pointed comments from commissioners about the height and density of the building, as well as the size of M&R’s voluntary donation to Wilmette’s housing assistance program.
Although he ultimately voted in favor of the project chairman Scott Goldstein still told developer Tony Rossi and his team, “we’d like to see a more robust affordable housing payment” than the $80,000 housing program donation to which the developer has already committed.
“What I would say, generally, is that this project should not be approved unless there’s a much more significant public benefit of some sort,” Commissioner Michael Bailey said.
“The concern I have is … that for better or worse, we’re setting a precedent here” on the project’s scale and size, Commissioner Steven Schwab said, as he and other commissioners, including Bailey, mulled the six story height of what the developers plan to call The Wilshore.
Wilmette’s comprehensive plan, which includes policies from the village center master plan, states that downtown buildings should ideally rise no more than five stories.
The Wilshore would be a six-story building, with retail space at ground level, 95 luxury apartments above and a 129-space parking garage for residents. The complex, which would actually run between 607 and 617 Green Bay Road, boasts about 6,000 square feet of retail.
While the five-story limit is a general policy, not a strict regulation, both commissioners and audience members repeatedly worried about the proposed size, asking what M&R could offer in return for getting planned unit development approval and zoning code variances allowing for its size.
“It looks nice at first blush, but it seems a little off,” Central Avenue resident Chad Boomgaarden said. Boomgaarden, who is an architect, brought his own renderings of how the building would look, and said, “It feels like it’s a story and a half too tall. They’re asking for one floor too much.”
“This is not the city of Evanston, this is the village of Wilmette,” Wilmette Avenue resident Sam Gambacorta told the commission.
Park Avenue resident Joe Lunkes, noting that M&R was buying the property from Wilmette, worried that the plan was going forward only to allow the village to recoup its costs. M&R is purchasing the property for $4.1 million.
The commission also heard from affordable housing advocates, as they did when the case first came to them on March 3.
“The $80,000 (donation) is not affordable housing,” Carter Cleland said. “Affordable housing is not a grant.”
Gail Schechter, executive director of the housing advocacy group Open Communities, said that, on a property that’s actually owned by the village there should be “some opportunity that would include … some units that are below market rates.”
Rossi and his team, including attorney Hal Francke, came out strong in defense of their project. They noted changes in the plan that they had voluntarily made at the urging of plan commissioners last month.
M&R redesigned the building to allow for a pedestrian walkway between a rear section of the complex and Green Bay Road; architects also created 10 public open-air parking spaces at the rear of the Wilshore.
Redesigning the building to allow for the narrow walkway and the public parking actually cut about 2,200 square feet of usable space, architect Brad Lewis said, but “It didn’t seem to hurt our building. Overall, I think it was a big plus for us.”
M&R is also willing to pay a pro-rata portion of the cost of repairing an alley behind its project, and is willing to put more trees along the parkway, if that is possible, partner Bill Patrun said.
The company insisted that, beyond the 10 new spaces it had created, there is ample parking in downtown Wilmette for shoppers. Company representatives also balked at a request that it move its own leasing office off the first floor, in order to put more retail at sidewalk level.
Although Commissioner Maria Choca Urban said she was very disappointed in that decision, because she said more retail would enhance the “public benefit” that forms part of the core of Wilmette’s downtown planning conditions, Rossi took issue with the idea.
“The energizing of downtown is not through retail. It’s through people, the 150 people living in the building,” he said.
Commissioners agreed that M&R should increase its donation to the housing program, but stopped short of suggesting a specific amount.
Rossi, who pointed out that the village’s own request for proposals on the property never mentioned a need for affordable housing from developers, said he would be happy to revisit the number.
He bluntly dismissed the idea of having any affordable units in the building; while his company has dealt with affordable housing in the past, “our rentals start at $1,900 for our smallest unit. There is nobody who is going to give you (an affordable housing) voucher for a $1,900 one bedroom unit.”
Eventually, the commission agreed to vote on a planned unit development approval that would be contingent on better design for the building’s west façade, parapet design that would minimize the building’s height, the pedestrian walkway, extra parkway trees, alley improvement and a bigger housing program donation.
But when it came time to vote, Bailey, Schwab and Commissioner Christine Norrick voted against approval, while Goldstein, Urban and Commissioner Richard DeLeo voted for it. A subsequent vote to recommend denying approval of the case tied again, with the same line-up of votes.
John Adler, Wilmette’s community development director, said April 9 that he was uncertain what the dual tie results would technically mean once the case goes before the board, but said, “The bottom line is that it’s not going with a positive recommendation.”
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune