Some 60 people gathered in the former King Home on Saturday evening to discuss a proposal to convert the vacant building into an apartment hotel under the Hawthorn Suites name, a Wyndham brand.
The event, moderated by City Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward), allowed attendees to ask questions and provide feedback to Cameel Halim, a Kenilworth landlord and real estate developer who owns the Halim Time and Glass Museum at 1560 Oak Ave.
Halim purchased the former King Home in 2017. The building at 1555 Oak Ave. had been an assisted living facility operated by the Presbyterian Homes.
The city’s Land Use Commission gave Halim’s proposal a positive recommendation in a 3-2 vote in January. It was set for a vote by the Planning and Development Committee on March 27 before Nieuwsma moved to table the matter to address questions about the percentage of short-term guests and the facility’s operating agreement with Wyndham.
Saturday’s meeting brought those issues and others to a public audience that filled the large room at the back of the building’s lobby.
‘Apartment hotel’ definition
Halim’s proposal seeks a special-use permit to establish an “apartment hotel” with 67 units. According to Halim, the units differ from traditional hotel rooms by having full kitchens and space to accommodate larger groups of people, such as families.
Although this classification is allowed in the building’s R6 zoning district, its variable definitions made it an area of concern at the meeting. In particular, Nieuwsma said the zoning code’s definition of apartment hotels “probably doesn’t do what we originally intended to do.”
“Our city code defines an apartment hotel as a multi-unit living facility, which has a minimum of 25% short-term guests. … It does not define a maximum,” Nieuwsma said. “It could have 100% short-term guests. 100% short-term guests, really, is a hotel.”
Conversation covered Halim’s plans for balancing units between short-term and long-term stays, as well as how he defined a long-term stay.
Halim said a primary target for the facility is the Northwestern University community. He said visiting faculty and students’ families often struggle to find lodging in Evanston and have to look farther away.
“There is a big demand for the university, for professors,” Halim said. “They come in for three months, two months, a week, two weeks. The [students], when they come, they come with their families.”
Nefrette Halim, Halim’s daughter and a partner in his real estate business, added that they’ve already had “an initial meeting” with the university about connecting these visitors to the King Home facility once it is open.
“We would like to walk through with them, but they’re very enthusiastic about it,” she said. “After a certain number of weeks, they have no options, and they can’t find places that are convenient for their guests in terms of proximity to the campus.”
While longer than a traditional hotel visit, the stays would still be finite and the rooms not intended for permanent residency – at least at first. Cameel Halim said that he and Wyndham would be open to signing yearlong leases and are flexible with the proportion of short- and long-term units based on the facility’s performance.
“After we run the hotel for a while, maybe we decide, we take [a] block of 10 apartments and make them permanent,” he said. “But we don’t know how much we’re going to charge [for] them, if we’re going to need to do that or not. … So maybe in the future, we’re going to have a few of them that are just stable value.”
Nieuwsma added that no matter how the units are assigned, the Halims having a franchise agreement with Wyndham will likely be a condition of the permit, which he said “does increase my comfort level” with the proposal.
Condition of other Halim properties raised
Although the meeting was principally focused on the King Home proposal, discussion of other Halim-owned properties in Evanston and Chicago turned hostile as criticism led to competing shouts and accusations of bad faith.
Early in the meeting, nearby resident Sharon Pines voiced opposition to the proposal based on what she said were code violations and legal actions taken against the Halims and their properties, including a 2012 settlement with HUD and EPA, and a 2014 federal court ruling over nonpayment for natural gas service.
At one point, Pines said that Cameel Halim “has buildings with lists going back years of code violations” with the City of Chicago, at which point Halim interjected and yelled, asking who had hired the woman and saying she had attended “to screw the meeting up.”
Pines ended her comments shortly after, and as Nieuwsma brought the meeting back under control, Nefrette Halim stepped forward to respond.
“In our business, most unfortunately, court is the way that it goes,” Nefrette Halim said. “So when you get a lawsuit against you, it doesn’t mean that you have become deemed in violation of certain things. … I would really welcome you to maybe see what other landlords do and experience in maybe a week, because we deal with all different levels of people’s lives in many different ways.”
Addressing the code violations, Nefrette Halim said that because building codes have changed dramatically over the years, “unless you have a brand-new building that is built to a certain code date, every single building is going to have a violation.”
Later in the meeting, another resident critiqued the condition of Halim-owned buildings in Evanston, especially commercial spaces such as in the Carlson Building. He said seeing ceiling detritus and etched glass caused him concern that the owners didn’t prioritize those spaces.
Halim responded that he and his family often purchase buildings in need of repairs and restoration before renting them out, and added that the pandemic has driven down market demand for retail spaces.
“I think the pandemic [has] destroyed, a little bit, the retail market,” he said. “For example, I used to have a sign on the Carlson Building, on the corner, for a restaurant. … My phone [would] not stop. Now I have the sign, I think for a whole month, I did not get one [call].”
When other attendees pressed him to address the vacant storefronts’ conditions, he pointed to the cleanup and rehabilitation of other Evanston buildings he and his family own. Closing out the topic, Nieuwsma asked Halim to consider it “a request from the alderman” to clean the vacant storefronts, which drew laughter and applause from the audience.
Hopes for economic recovery
Many attendees also praised the proposal for the economic benefits it could bring to downtown Evanston and the city at large. One resident said establishing a new hotel is a safe bet, one that could bolster other businesses downtown.
He called hoteling a more secure business and said the location works for the city.
Resident Greg Morrow called it a “fantastic idea,” and said it would bring much-needed foot traffic to a downtown that he said is “declining.” He noted the recent closure of longtime Irish pub Celtic Knot an indicator of this decline.
“The people that stay here will go to Bennison’s, will go to Gigio’s, they’ll shop,” Morrow said. “We need people that are going to bring added value in.”
Another resident thanked the Halims for being good neighbors and said the proposed hotel would simply be filling the space left by the Margarita Inn after it stopped operating as a hotel early in the pandemic.
At the end of the meeting, Nieuwsma said the City Council could hold a final vote on the King Home proposal in as little as three weeks.
“This comes to, first, the Planning and Development Committee on May 8; the earliest this would be approved by City Council would be on May 22,” Nieuwsma said. “And that is an if; I’m one of nine votes. I still have some deliberation to do myself.”
If the City Council approves the project, Cameel Halim said the work required to meet Wyndham’s standards could be finished relatively quickly given previous renovations done before the pandemic.
“When we did the building as assisted living, we did a lot of work here, all the heating system, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical is done,” Halim said. “So all we have to do here is just what Wyndham wants. So I’d say there’s an opening between maybe four months [from today] to the end of the year. We hope so.”
The project could follow a similar approval timeline as the special-use permit for a homeless shelter at the Margarita Inn, across the street at 1566 Oak Ave. The shelter proposal received a 3-3 tie vote from the Land Use Commission on April 26, sending it to the City Council without a recommendation.
That April 26 meeting was held specifically for Halim to testify against the proposal, after a Cook County judge ruled the city did not grant him a continuance of the commission’s Nov. 30 meeting, something he was entitled to as an adjacent property owner.