A proposal to replace the former Citgo gas station at Crawford Avenue and Gross Point Road in northeast Evanston with a drive-through Chase Bank, was sent back to City staff by unanimous vote of the Planning and Development Committee on July 23. The proposal now sits in limbo.
The primary sticking point at the Planning and Development Committee meeting was the proposed rezoning of a vacant lot to the north and east of the gas station site from residential to commercial.
Residents from the affected neighborhood flooded Council chambers, and not a single one spoke in favor of the bank’s proposal. The Council packet of materials concerning this issue included a petition signed by 158 residents opposed to the zoning change.
The reasons cited by residents varied, but the level of opposition did not. Megan Lutz, whose home sits directly next door to the vacant lot that would be re-zoned, said that the lot once contained a house but a speculator bought the lot, tore down the house, "and put the property on the market for [a commercial-property asking price of] $700,000." She said approval would encourage speculators to buy and demolish houses with the intention of converting property to business uses.
Others pointed to safety issues, with added traffic exiting the drive through 24 hours a day; opposition to drive- throughs in general, which they said were purposely left out of the Central Street Master Plan; and the encroachment of commercial uses into residential-zoned areas.
Chase Bank representatives focused on the removal of a blighted former gas station with a brand new bank that would have attractive design and landscaping. Richard Sapkin of Edgemark Development, LLC, owner of the Citgo lot, said that over the course of numerous meetings his company was "constantly evolving our plan to meet with the needs of staff and neighbors."
As evidence, Edgemark presented a much different plan from the one presented in October 2011. The proposal no longer included two residential lots, but instead required the Citgo lot and only one of two residential lots to the north. The orientation of the drive-through ATMs was also different and no longer faced directly into Ms. Lutz’s dining room window, according to this new plan.
Even the newer and still-evolving plan would require rezoning of residential property to commercial and the loss of a City-owned alley. Further, after obtaining zoning amendments, the developer would have to go through the special use permit process in order to have the drive-through approved. All told, it was simply too much to ask of the Committee, aldermen apparently felt, particularly in the face of such overwhelming community opposition.
"I get extremely cautious and concerned" when anyone wants to change residential to commercial, said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. When a proposed use "requires a [zoning] text amendment, a map amendment, the vacation of a City alley, and a special use permit…[it] seems we’ve got the wrong location," she added.
Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, asked whether the site could remain a gas station without any zoning changes. "That and a number of other uses [would be] by-right businesses," said Steve Griffin, the City’s director of Community and Economic Development.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, expressed opposition as well. "Alleys are sacrosanct," she said, adding that she was impressed by how many people turned out for the meeting.
Under the City Code, a petition signed by 30 percent of residents within 500 feet of the lot line of the proposed rezoning requires "a favorable vote of three-fourths of all the Aldermen elected to City Council." With Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, out, and Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, sitting as an appointed rather than an elected alderman, the proposal would have required six of seven aldermen to pass. It was clearly not going to get that level of support.
Ald. Rainey proposed sending the matter back to staff and taking it off the Committee’s agenda. Her motion passed 4-0. The proposal sits in limbo, and the vacant Citgo will remain.