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The Tower Vote Revisited

The Tower will not be built. The Evanston City Council, with Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl presiding, voted 5 to 4 not to extend the Special Use Permit granted to Focus Development in 2009 to construct a 35 story apartment building in the heart of downtown Evanston. Thus, 708 Church Street will remain as is, to the benefit of every Evanston resident.

It was a tense evening, with battle lines clearly drawn between members of the Council and exacerbated by a challenge of Mayoral authority.

As the final vote was cast by Alderperson Jane Grover of the Seventh Ward, Tim Anderson and his entourage left the City Council Chambers without a word. Cue the applause by neighborhood residents who have been opposed to the project since inception, and whose resolve did not waver.

There was good news and there was bad news.

The good news was the discovery process and the resulting vote. When questioned, Mr. Anderson revealed Focus had let lapse its option to purchase the property. Reluctantly, Anderson was forced to admit he had no ownership interest in the property nor a contract to purchase the real estate. He insisted he had a “relationship” with the owners, and that would be sufficient to ensure the purchase. The Council found this suggestion to be lacking.

Additionally, the Council determined that the original grant in March, 2009 was so generous it effectively contained multiple extensions. So while it is customary to grant extensions, the facts of this case were sui generis. And the City Council (5-4) recognized the distinction.

The Council also listened to some simple arithmetic. With development and displacement a distinct possibility, many tenants of 708 Church, both professional and retail tenants left years ago. Current tenants have short leases so that the developer may completely depopulate an already high vacancy-rate property on short notice.

While this is not unreasonable, it has discouraged investment and business since 2009. With the extension sought by Focus, this cloud would have continued to hang over the current tenants. As thoughtfully explained by Northwestern Prof. Allan Drebin, Focus would continue to have an “option.” The right to develop without the obligation to do so. Win-Win for Focus, with all the risk borne by the City of Evanston.

The bad news; the vote was 5 opposed but 4 in favor of the extension. Given the facts, along with an obviously preplanned fall-back strategy to reduce the extension “ask” to one year down from three, the sponsor relationship between Focus and certain Alderpersons raises ominous questions of propriety. While it is perfectly acceptable to believe in and actively champion an ordinance, the political capital expended on this vote was considerable and conspicuous.

So do bad things happen in sets of three? The Harley Clarke Mansion debacle, the Tower near catastrophe; what will be next? This year has provided more than enough drama and intrigue. Maybe we could take some time off, with 2014 being remembered as a quiet year, a year everyone just got along.

That would be a fine New Year's wish.

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