Public testimony on the strategic update of the 1989 comprehensive plan for downtown Evanston is now closed, and members of the Plan Commission will begin their work in earnest next month, modifying and fine-tuning the plan.
Preservation and height were the main topics during the final public comment session, held on Jan. 16. Several members, former members and associate members of the City’s Preservation Commission presented their views on how to encourage preservation and adaptive re-use of buildings in the downtown area.
Jordan Cramer, chair of the Preservation Commission, said that commission had three recommendations for the Plan Commission as they craft the downtown plan: “Identify the existing landmarks – where they are clustered and where they fit in,” he said. He gave them a list of 10 buildings in the downtown area Preservation Commission members had identified as being worthy of landmark status. The final suggestion was to create a pool of funds which owners of potential landmark buildings could use to improve their buildings. The funds, he said, could come from developers as one of their public benefits.
Mary McWilliams suggested creating a conservation area in the “traditional” zone of low-rise buildings with differing façades and large windows along Davis Street west of the CTA and Metra tracks. “It would help preserve the sense of place and character,” she said, adding, “We should identify the critical features and say, ‘We have to preserve these if we want to preserve the character of the place.’”
Ann Dienner described that area as a “low-key, tempering area for the excitement of downtown Evanston.” She also said, as did historian Ann Earle, that the apartment houses on Ridge Avenue to the north and south of Davis Street should not be included in the transitional or “edge” area of downtown and perhaps should not be considered part of the downtown at all.
Mary Brugliera said she felt the “recommended height in the core area should be 32 stories, not 42 stories.” She said that, beginning in May, the Chicago Architecture Foundation will have a walking tour of downtown Evanston. “I hope we have a lot of downtown left to tour,” she added.
Jeff Smith said he felt the base heights in the proposed plan “should all be lower” and that buildings should be described in feet, not in stories, as is now the case. He added some recommendations on sustainability: “Any building in downtown Evanston should be green as a requirement. … [The plan] needs [also] an emphasis on adaptive re-use.” He also said of the downtown area, “It would be regrettable if the downtown plan were driven by or keyed to” a developer or development.
Jack Weiss and James Torvik of Design Evanston – a group of design professionals in Evanston – said they supported the height and density in the plan. He referred to an ongoing question of whether the relatively small showing of residents who attended Plan Commission hearings to say they favored the proposed 49-story tower or the added height in the downtown plan indicates tacit support of them or lack of support and said, “I believe that people who support some causes do not [always] speak up.”
Laura Saviano said she hoped the result of the plan would be to create more cultural attractions as well as more housing or studio space for artists.
Consultants Kirk Bishop of Duncan Associates and John LaMotte of the Lakota Group said some of their height recommendations are shorter than the present zoning allows. “You’ll find many of our recommendations do not increase height in large areas,” said Mr. Bishop. He also said form-based zoning, which is the centerpiece of the downtown plan as proposed, would address many of the height concerns.
“Form-based zoning allows definite base heights with specific caps on the maximum height tied to specific, defined public benefits. … You’ll find that with the exceptions in the current zoning law there are no limits to building heights in downtown. They can be fairly compared with infinity.”