Plans to redevelop a stretch of land across Wilmette Avenue are headed back to the starting line after village trustees struck down a contested proposal that also recently received negative feedback from multiple local advisory boards.
Wilmette’s Village board during its Tuesday, June 13 meeting unanimously voted against a developer’s pitch to build a 14-unit townhome development in the 1300 block of Wilmette Avenue. Trustees’ denial of the request comes approximately five weeks after the village’s zoning commission voted 6-1 against the proposal.
As previously reported by The Record, project plans called for the development to stretch across three separate parcels, 1306-1318 Wilmette Ave., which were proposed to be consolidated into one lot. The lots at 1306 and 1310 Wilmette Ave. currently feature homes while the lot at 1314-1318 Wilmette Ave. is vacant, according to village records.
The developer’s proposal includes demolishing the two dwellings to make way for three new structures, per village records detailing the proposal. Two of the structures would be perpendicular to Wilmette Avenue and each include four units, while the third would be located toward the back of the consolidated lot, face Wilmette Avenue and include six units.
Trustees echoed the concerns brought forward by the zoning board earlier this year in their rebuke of the proposal, saying the project was too dense for this property while also citing concerns about traffic and the west side-yard setback in the proposed plans.
Although the board was united in its opposition, trustees were all in agreement that they support the idea of townhomes on the property and encouraged the developer to refine project plans and return with a less-dense proposal.
“We are not against this project, we are not against the design, we are not against the concept,” trustee Stephen Leonard said. “But we just feel like there’s too much density. Your neighbors have said the same. The good news is that you have a solution and the solution to all these issues is to rethink the density on the project and resubmit it. And we’d love to work with you to improve this project.”
Trustee Gina Kennedy expressed the strongest opposition to the proposal noting that she had concerns about traffic, safety — given the proximity to McKenzie Elementary School and the number of children who walk through the area — and the lack of green space included. Kennedy also said she did not believe any of the criteria for the requested variances was met.
“I know that we want more townhouses in the village, and I want more townhouses in the village, but they have to be appropriate to the site and this is simply too much in too small an area in my view,” she said.
Trustee Gerald Smith said he believes “townhouses are a necessity” in Wilmette but he called the “size and scope of the project a little bit too big.”
“We do need this type of housing,” he said. “We do need this transition. It is necessary. It appeals to my sense of affordable housing and different generational housing, so let’s work on it and see where we go.”
Board member Kate Gjaja told the development team that she appreciated the work that went into the project but that she would like to see a proposal that is “something like this but not quite this.”
Kathy Dodd, one of the longest tenured trustees on the board who is also the chair of the land use subcommittee, said she was “very torn” when considering this proposal, noting that she wanted to support it but her key objection is related to the west side yard setback.
Dodd showed support for almost every aspect of the proposal but ultimately stated her vote was a “very reluctant no” mainly due to the required variance for the west side yard.
“I’m disappointed this is where we are,” Dodd said. “I’m disappointed because I’ve been on the board for six years and I don’t know that I’ve seen an application in front of us that the plan commission didn’t want, that the zoning board didn’t want, that the residents didn’t want and our staff didn’t want and I see very minimal changes that were made as a result of all that feedback.
“I hope this isn’t the last time that you’re in front of us because I do believe that this is a project that can be successful.”
The rejected project is another failed swing to reimagine the properties just west of downtown Wilmette. Since 2006, plans to redevelop a portion of the 1300 block of WIlmette Avenue have appeared in front of the zoning board four times.
Despite negative recommendations from the zoning commissioners for two of the previous projects, Wilmette’s Village Board, in both 2006 and 2015, granted special-use permits for townhome developments at 1314-1318 Wilmette Ave. Neither came to fruition.
The development team behind the latest attempt is the Gambacorta family, a local applicant with longstanding ties to the village. Sam Gambacorta, speaking on behalf of the formal partnership group behind the proposal, previously told the zoning board — and reiterated at Tuesday’s meeting — that his family has lived in Wilmette for more than 90 years.
The family reportedly acquired the three parcels on Wilmette Avenue over the course of 60-plus years, starting with a purchase of the lot at 1310 Wilmette Ave. in 1960. The Gambacortas purchased 1314 and 1318 Wilmette Ave. in 2015 and followed that up in 2017 by acquiring 1306 Wilmette Ave.
“Our proposed 14-unit development fits in well with the neighborhood both in character and density,” Sam Gambacorta told trustees. “The site plan has all the design features important to us and it also gives the maximum benefit to neighboring properties and provides for a beautiful and spacious, nice functioning site in regards to access, parking openness and green space.”
Gambacorta later added that the development would provide “future living opportunities for individuals and families who call Wilmette their home.”
The project has been met with strong opposition from nearby neighbors since plans were first introduced. A dozen members of the public spoke at the meeting, with seven expressing disapproval and four showing support.
Margaret Smith, a 37-year resident of Wilmette whose home is just west of the proposed development and neighbors one of the potential buildings in the development, called the plans an “outrageous request.”
“Just about everyone that I know that lives in (this zoning district) is against this and doesn’t want this kind of development,” she said. “I guess I would say that if you’re going to do stuff like this, why do you bother having zoning laws at all if you can so blatantly disregard them in these proposals.”
Paul Wilson, a resident of the 500 block of Park, said he supported the proposal and called it a “great solution” given the property has been sitting vacant for a while.
Prior to the board’s decision to vote down the proposal, Wilmette President Senta Plunkett encouraged the development team to work with village staff and neighbors to find a solution that might work better.
“We know there is a need for this type of housing in our community and we appreciate that you are bringing this to us,” she said. “We hope that you can work with staff and maybe talk with neighbors and try to come up with a plan that accomplishes those goals. It’s probably not going to be as many (units) as you want but we do look forward to having you come before us again.”
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Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.