A longtime business executive and top Republican fundraiser, Ron Gidwitz, and his son Scott saw their proposal for a 500-apartment, two-building complex approved by the Skokie village board at its Sept. 19 meeting.
The project is planned as a mixed-use development, with retail on the ground level and housing above, with space for a potential cannabis dispensary, according to the developers’ proposal. The nearly 500 planned apartments range from studios to three bedrooms, but none of them are slated as affordable housing, a point that some residents objected to during the public comment period.
The project, which is designed with an eye to environmental sustainability per its architect, is slated for a site the Gidwitzes have long owned on the northeast corner of Linder and Touhy Avenues, across the street from the Village Crossing shopping center.
The Skokie Village Board approved the plan with a 5-1 vote, with Trustee James Johnson the lone dissenter. Trustee Alison Pure Slovin was absent.
Scott Gidwitz said his family has owned for nearly 60 years the 6.2-acre parcel, whose addresses are 5404-5440 Touhy Avenue and 7235 Linder Avenue. The current buildings on the site are “decades old and functionally obsolete,” he said, and he worked with village staff for 18 months to come up with an appropriate plan.
The new development will include 30,000 square feet of commercial space, including about 5,000 square feet for a potential cannabis dispensary along Linder Avenue, Scott Gidwitz said.
The development will consist of two buildings of similar size, each seven stories, with a large outdoor space in the middle. There will be 741 residential parking spots and 157 commercial parking spots, totaling 980 spots, more than required by village code.
At the Sept. 19 Skokie village board meeting, several residents and advocates asked for the project to include affordable housing units. They cited the need to maintain economic diversity among residents and the increasing difficulty in finding affordable housing in the area.
Attorney Steven Elrod, who represents the Gidwitzes, said the developers made “a great effort” to make this a “highly” environmentally sustainable project. The project would not be economically feasible if it had to include affordable housing, a concern that was brought up only over the weekend (before the vote), Elrod said.
Ron Gidwitz, a Republican donor, served as Illinois finance chair for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, according to previous Chicago Tribune reporting. The former president later named Gidwitz to serve the US ambassador to Belgium.
Gidwitz served as CEO of Helene Curtis, a hair care products company, from 1985 until the company was sold in 1996 to Unilever, also according to previous Tribune reporting. He also ran for governor in 2006.
Gidwitz also owned a 356-unit taxpayer-subsidized apartment complex, Evergreen Terrace, in Joliet, according to previous Chicago Tribune reporting. The Gidwitzes lost a lengthy legal battle with the city of Joliet, whose lawsuit complained of crime and blight at the complex, in 2014 and had to sell it to the city, previous stories detailed.
However, Scott Gidwitz will be leading the Skokie project, and said he couldn’t comment on the Joliet matter because it dates back to when he was still a kid in high school.
“I am focused on building a new mixed-use complex in Skokie, working alongside the village to create a first-class housing and retail development of which residents and taxpayers can be proud,” Scott Gidwitz commented.
Skokie Village Manager John Lockerby commented, “The Village of Skokie is pleased that the Gidwitz organization is making another significant investment in the community, and through the development review process, they are well aware of the standards Skokie sets and enforcers for residential properties. This conversion of a largely vacant parcel of property into a residential development underscores Skokie’s desirable location and excellent quality of life in the community.”
Mike Brecklaw, principal of the Chicago-based architecture firm FitzGerald, said the project includes sustainable materials, more bike room space than typical, and above-standard energy efficiency. The bird-friendly design includes less glass for balcony railings and a variety of colors for materials, he said.
The building was also designed to be easily converted into all-electric, if needed in the future, with attention to transformer location and conduits for solar roof panels, Brecklaw said.
Elrod said the developers agreed to all of the village’s 63 conditions for site plan approval and eight conditions for subdivision approval. The developers also addressed concerns from Fairview School District 72 by ensuring school buses could enter and exit the property, he said.
“We really do believe this is a terrific, and much needed, project for Skokie,” Elrod said.
Trustee Johnson asked why Skokie doesn’t have an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which would require new construction to include affordable units.
The village tries to add low- and moderate-income housing whenever possible, Mayor George Van Dusen said. “There is no question there is a low- and moderate-income housing problem, but you don’t solve it by putting straightjackets on developers,” Van Dusen said. “If you do, developers go elsewhere.”
Village officials touted reports from the Illinois Housing Development Authority showing Skokie’s affordable housing stock was 19.9% in 2018, up from 14.7% in 2016. The state’s Affordable Housing Planning and Appeals Act requires municipalities to be at 10% or more.
However, Skokie’s affordable housing stock has been dwindling, said resident Gail Schechter, who serves on the state’s Housing Appeals Board. The Gidwitz project is “the biggest development since Optima (Old Orchard Woods), and it’s going to skew the numbers,” Schechter said. “Plus, in general, Skokie is becoming less and less affordable.”
Sue Loellbach, manager of advocacy for Connections for the Homeless, which serves north suburban Cook County, said 35% of households in Skokie are spending more than 30% of their income for housing.
Resident Maggie Vandermeer pointed to the proliferation of “boutique” and “luxury” housing developments in recent years in Skokie.
More projects are expected to come down the pike, including low- and moderate-income housing, the mayor said.
The 12-story Highpoint at 8000 North luxury apartment building at the northwest corner of Oakton and Niles Center Road in downtown Skokie opened six months ago, with rents as high as $4,149.