The proposal for a 38-story mixed-use tower at 708 Church St. has been tabled until after the City has adopted its downtown plan. The decision on May 7 by the Planning and Development Committee could put the vote back as far as July, since City staff estimate the Plan Commission will need until June to complete the downtown plan and forward it to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee.

James Klutznick, one of the developers of the proposed tower, said on May 8 his team had not yet decided what they would do next. “We’re assessing what transpired last night and will determine our course of action,” Mr. Klutznick told the RoundTable.

The vote followed 90 minutes of public comment, most of which came from persons who urged aldermen to reject the tower proposal.

Aldermen at Odds

The initial discussion between Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, and Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, defined for the most part the ensuing debate.

Ald. Wynne moved that the committee reject the tower proposal. “My reasons are the same as many of the points raised by so many of the speakers. Fundamentally I don’t believe the public benefits give us a reason for exploding the zoning ordinance. [The tower] could ruin the downtown that we have so carefully created. We’ve lost a little bit of our charm but we’ve added vibrancy.”

The proposed tower, Ald. Wynne added, is “so massively out of scale it ruins what we have. I don’t think the economic benefits are there, and the public benefits are questionable.” She also said she was concerned about the loss of revenue from the businesses that would have to move and the negative impact the construction would have on existing businesses.

“This is our opportunity, but this is not the project. … I appreciate the developer, but this is not the right project for downtown.”

Ald. Moran held the opposing view. He said, “As Alderman Wynne has pointed out, in the last 10 years there’s been a lot of revitalizing of a downtown that was flat on its back – a lot of it because of what Mr. Klutznick’s father did at Old Orchard, that [debilitated] the retail and mercantile aspect of downtown Evanston. Mr. Klutznick is trying to help bring it back.”

Downtown Evanston, Ald. Moran said, is like an organism, “one that either moves forward or slides back. The building that’s being proposed is significant and important in downtown Evanston and all of Evanston. It will bring in $20 million in property tax increment between 2010 and 2018, plus generate about $1 million in sales tax revenues. We could use this money to rehab the Hahn building; we could use it to purchase and demolish the Fountain Square building, to re-create Fountain Square, to create a civic performing arts center.”

Referring to comments by some residents that the developers’ contribution to the affordable-housing fund was not a public benefit because it was mandated by City ordinance, Ald. Moran said he viewed the mandatory contributions to the affordable-housing fund as a public benefit. “The fact that the ordinance requires it is a statement of public values.”

He also said aldermen did not have the “luxury of looking at things individually,” such as “whether or not you like this building. … If you do that, you lose sight of how we will be able to bring the City forward.” He said aldermen also had to consider the $120 million in taxes the building would generate over its lifetime and that these tax revenues would help the City to address the unfunded liability of $140 million to the police and fire pension funds. He emphasized the need for an economic engine for the City to be able to fund its services, particularly human services and the branch libraries.

“The approval of this plan will give a unified vision of the block: a 38-story building, the Hahn building and possibly the removal of the Fountain Square building,” Ald. Moran said. He said the “wedding-cake” model of downtown, with the tallest building in the heart of downtown, had been proposed for quite some time, and added that he felt someone would develop the Fountain Square block, with its low-rise buildings.

Addressing the argument that the building would destroy the character of Evanston, Ald. Moran suggested the character of Evanston can be found in “the lakefront, Northwestern University, the parks system, the beautiful architecture and the transit system.”

Although no formal vote was taken on Ald. Wynne’s motion to reject the tower proposal, three other aldermen – Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward; Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward; and Anjana Hansen, 9th Ward – said they would also vote to reject the tower proposal. Ald. Tisdahl said, “This is not the capstone project that Evanston wants. Condo owners are not the pot of gold that will solve our financial problem.”

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, who chaired the meeting, did not voice her opinion on the project; neither did Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, nor Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward. When Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, spoke about the proposal, he said he appreciated the efforts of the developers and wondered if the motion should be tabled.

The Motion to Table

Ald. Moran made the motion to table the vote on the tower proposal until after the downtown plan is adopted, an idea that had been suggested by several residents in public comment over the past few months. The one-vote margin to table the tower proposal reflected the slim margin (4-3) by which the tower proposal came from the Plan Commission to the Planning and Development Committee on its way to City Council.

A motion to table is not debatable but needs a majority to pass. Those who voted in favor of tabling the motion were Alds.. Wollin, Jean-Baptiste, Bernstein, Moran and Rainey.

Ald. Bernstein’s support of the motion to table, which kept the tower proposal alive for another day, came as a surprise to many of the 40+ persons in the audience – there were audible gasps and groans audible at his vote – in part perhaps because one reason he had just given for not supporting the tower was the community’s perception that the process had been tainted.

“I, too, will be voting against the project,” he said. “The height of the building was never a concern … but I think this building was snake-bitten from the first.”

City Council held a closed-session meeting on March 27, 2007, at which the developers presented their plans for the tower along with a vision for a renovated Fountain Square, which the Attorney General’s office said violated the Open Meetings Act. Referring to that meeting, Ald. Bernstein said, “After results of this closed-door session were reported … people thought it was a done deal from the start. … The downtown plan and the Plan Commission were responding to what they thought was the will of the Council. … We were tainted by this brush.”

Another tall building, Ald. Bernstein said, “will not change the character of this community. … If the Council passes this … damage will be done to the psyche of this community,”

The Will of the Council?

One subtext of the outcry against the proposed tower in downtown Evanston is that during the downtown charrette held last summer none of the community comments suggested additional height in the downtown area.

Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, said he felt the Plan Commission members who voted in favor of the tower – which was then proposed at 49 stories – were “”responding to what they thought was the will of the Council.””

Stuart Opdycke, who was vice chair of the Plan Commission when the vote was taken on the tower, told the RoundTable that is not the case. “”I don’t care, frankly, what the City thinks,”” Mr. Opdycke said. “”I wasn’t making my decision [on that].””

Now chair of the Plan Commission, Mr. Opdycke said, “”I hope the [708 Church St.] project is not dead. The TIF [tax-increment financing] window is closing. I hope something can come of this – maybe a performing arts center at the old Varsity Theater [still partly preserved behind the façade of the Gap store on Sherman Avenue].