Industry News

Carroll Properties and Fifield moving forward on 368 apartment units for downtown Evanston

More than 30 years after putting up an office building in Evanston, developer Steven Fifield has returned to Chicago’s northern neighbor with the largest apartment project it has seen in years.

Fifield has partnered with Robert King, president of Carroll Properties, to modify and revive a development that couldn’t move forward once the housing crash hit in 2007. The new plan calls for 368 units on the northern end of Evanston’s downtown.

It’s a $148 million project for two connected buildings at 1881 Oak and 1890 Maple. The Oak Avenue site, a vacant lot, will get a 16-story building while the Maple property, with an unused office building, will get 14 stories. They will be connected by a parking and amenity base, following a design Fifield used in his twin-tower Alta at K Station complex on the Near West Side. The plan also includes 12 town houses along Emerson Street.

The Evanston City Council has backed the plan and the first units should be delivered early in 2015.

All of which invites a couple of pertinent, and perhaps impertinent, questions for Fifield. One is, how did he get the plan past Evanston’s review process when the town is known for being tough on developers? The other is whether he’s contributing to Housing Bubble 2.0, a potential offshoot of the bigger crash that has to do with overbuilding of new apartments. Evanston already has three substantial apartment projects under construction.

Fifield said he and King had the advantage of dealing with a site where a development already was approved. Another plus: no public subsidy.

To meet concerns about traffic congestion, they cut the size of what’s being built, mostly by losing grocery-anchored commercial space that King envisioned in his original project.

While the number of apartments increased with the revision, the number of bedrooms didn’t. Fifield switched the formula toward studios and one-bedrooms. Some Evanstonians wondered if he was targeting Northwestern University students. “We know we’ll get students in the buildings, but our priority is everybody else,” Fifield said. He’s figuring on demand from empty-nesters, North Shore couples whose kids have grown and who want to remain in the area, but who like an urban sensibility.

Everybody knows the real estate mantra about location, but Fifield tracks another all-important variable: time. By delivering units beginning in 2015, he hopes to own a piece of it in a wealthy market.

“Evanston has been absorbing about 200 [rental] units per year,” Fifield said. “When we deliver, the other projects will be done. Evanston, like Chicago, has been pretty starved for new product.”

Developer Anthony Rossi, a partner in an 80-apartment complex going up at 1720 Central St. in Evanston, said Fifield’s plans are bold but doable. “You’ll be able to tell how deep the Evanston market is pretty soon,” Rossi said. His project is to be completed in July, and two larger developments in town are to follow late in 2013 and into 2014.

One concern about the Fifield site came from Northwestern. The vacant office building to be razed once was imagined as a location for “wet labs,” where drugs or chemicals are processed with liquid solutions. They require specialized piping and are important to start-up companies that can have a university pedigree.

Fifield ran numbers and pointed city officials to six other buildings near Northwestern where landlords might be eager to accommodate wet labs. But history says demand for wet labs often goes dry.

David Roeder / Chicago Sun-Times / February 5, 2013