City panels back North Shore expansion

Plans to expand the former North Shore Hotel in downtown Evanston won unanimous approval from the city’s Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals Wednesday night.
Horizon Realty Group, the new owners of the property at 1611 Chicago Ave., have renamed it the North Shore Residence and are planning to construct an eight-story addition on land just north of the existing building now occupied by an outdoor swimming pool and garden area.
The addition would have an enclosed winter garden topped by skylights, an indoor pool and retail space on its first floor, with 65 independent living apartments on the upper floors.
The owners also plan to renovate the old building, combining existing small units into larger ones to reduce the total unit count there from 185 to 140.
They also plan to substantially renovate the public areas of the old building — removing interior offices added decades ago that obstruct the building’s original lobby and restoring the hotel’s ballroom.
Plan Commission member Seth Freeman called the nearly windowless north face of the new buiding “kind of ugly,” but project architect John Myefski said that because the new building abuts the property line of the single-story retail building next door, fire codes require elimination of windows.
The only windows on that side are on a slightly recessed section of hallway facing elevator doors. Because the addition is only 65-feet wide, Myefski said, it’s not feasible to provide a setback of 14-feet or more that would be required to have more windows on the upper floors.
The Zoning Board of Appeals debated whether to require valet parking for the ballroom as a condition for approving the special use, but concluded it would not be necessary.
Because few of the building’s current residents have cars, the panel concluded that the 20 additional units would not add to parking problems. The owners have agreed to lease nine parking spaces in the city’s Church Street garage, but said they expect they will mostly remain unused.
Owner Jeff Michael said the ballroom could accommodate 150 to 175 people at a seated event, making it significantly smaller than existing nearby ballrooms in the Women’s Club of Evanston and the Hilton Orrington.
Michael said that when he and his father bought the property last September it had severe negative cash flow, a 40 percent vacancy rate and was facing imminent closure.
He said he wants to turn the building into “the most desirable and attractive independent living facility on the entire North Shore” while not displacing any current residents.
He said the facility now lacks all the amenities needed to attract new residents and many units lack adequate kitchens and baths.
Rent rates now run from $800 for a studio to $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom unit with an additional roughly $600 for food service.
He said that after the new construction and renovation, rates would probably go up about 20 percent.
He said current residents are typically in their mid-80s and relatively frail. With the new amenities he hopes to target a slightly younger demographic — people in their 70s who are still active and want to enjoy the vibrancy of Evanston with its downtown dining opportunities and lakefront.
Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Lori Summmers said she had reservations about the design of the new building — that it tries to match the existing structure in some ways, but only goes half-way in doing that.
But she noted that city staff had recommended the approach used and that the design issues weren’t a consideration for the special use permit.
The Plan Commission was taking its first crack at applying the city’s design guidelines, adopted in 2006, to a planned development project.
And Plan Commission member Jim Ford said he thought the design achieved “a nice balance between not duplicating the old building” and ignoring it entirely.
The project now goes to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee for review at its July 22 meeting.
Assuming quick approval by the full City Council, the owners hope to have the addition completed by July 2014.
No members of the public spoke at Wednesday’s meeting to support or oppose the project.