The Plan Commission meets tonight to debate further the details of the downtown plan. The draft plan, which has been under consideration for more than a year, is intended to be the City’s framework for downtown growth for the next 20 years.

Commission members have made quite a bit of progress on the plan, said consultant John LaMotte, and they hope to submit a recommended draft plan to City Council (by way of the Planning and Development Committee), which has the ultimate vote, within a few weeks.

Commission members have agreed on most of the concepts for the plan; the major topics left to be debated relate to maximum building height in two of the transition areas and in the downtown core.

Highlights of the Plan: Smart Growth and Form-Based Zoning

The plan is centered on the concepts of new urbanism, smart growth and transit-oriented development. Policies incorporating these concepts promote “in-fill development,” that is, adding development to already dense areas, particularly those near transportation, said John LaMotte of the Lakota Group, one of the City’s consultants on the downtown plan. Other aspects of smart growth include incorporating sustainability, minimizing travel and the impact of travel and having multimodal streets, allowing for pedestrians and bicycles as well as motor vehicles.

Evanston, particularly the downtown core, already incorporates some of these elements, in that it has several mixed-use developments near the CTA and Metra tracks, bike lanes on major streets and bike paths.

Mr. LaMotte has said Evanston’s downtown is already an example of smart planning, with its residential developments, retail stores, parking garages “and even a grocery store.” He also said that Evanston was a “model for cities of this size for smart growth and transit-oriented development.”

Form-based zoning – another aspect of the downtown plan – considers a proposed project in relation to the existing buildings and character of an area. Its focus is the “pedestrian experience – how does it feel to walk in this area?” Mr. LaMotte has said.

Review of a proposed new project would focus on the location of a project on the site itself, how the project comports with the other buildings in the area and how the immediate surroundings would be affected by the building. That is, reviewers might look at whether there were sufficiently wide sidewalks in front of the development, enough storefront windows and streetscape enhancements to create pedestrian interest and whether the average height of the buildings on an entire block, with the new proposal added in, would be “too tall” for an area.

Form-based zoning, the consultants said, will eliminate the need for case-by-case requests. “It won’t be as arbitrary or capricious as what you have now,” Mr. LaMotte has said.

The plan calls for maximum height in the downtown core, the Fountain Square block, tapering down to the residential areas. “Transitional” areas, along Emerson and Lake streets, and Hinman Avenue, for example, would be allowed greater height (Council has already given approval to 14- and 18- story developments on Emerson Street). “Traditional” areas, such as the two- and three-story buildings along west Davis Street, would be the shortest buildings in the downtown area, maintained at their present height but not down-zoned.

The Bonus System

Most of the issues to be resolved by the Plan Commission are dwarfed by the issue of height – a concern that has galvanized much of the community. The draft plan would allow a by-right height as well as additional height if the developer of a project provided additional, specified, public benefits. Additional height is only one of the types of zoning relief a developer could garner from providing the extra public benefit.

Tonight the Plan Commission members may finalize their list of what public benefits would trigger the zoning bonus (additional height, density or relief from the parking-space requirement, for example) and a point-system to rank the public benefits and equate them with the bonuses.

Going into tonight’s meeting, the draft plan calls for a maximum by-right height of 28 stories in the downtown area, with an additional 14 stories allowed through the bonus system – that is, if the developer provided sufficient public benefits to qualify for the additional height.

While Commission members differed as to the form a public benefit should take to qualify for a bonus – whether it should be part of the project itself, such as sustainability, underground parking or on-site affordable housing, or whether it could be separate from the project, such as a contribution to a fund for public art or open space on another site – they agreed that the benefits would have to be substantial and long-lasting, since the community would be “stuck” with a project for at least 20 years.

At present the Plan Commission members have agreed that underground parking, on-site affordable housing in excess of the amount required, LEED ranking, landmark preservation, enhancement of open space and enhancement of streetscapes would be eligible for zoning bonuses.

Underground parking: Underground parking was the highest priority of most of the Commission members, some of whom thought it should be a requirement rather than a bonusable item. Mr. Woods said he understood that, given the proximity of Lake Michigan and the City’s water table, water could be a problem for parking garages more than two stories below ground.

Mr. LaMotte said underground parking could cost $40,000-$50,000 per space, as compared with $5,000-$8,000 per space on surface lots; $20,000-$25,000 per space on a “raw deck”; and $25,000-$35,000 on a “raw deck with architecture.”

Above-ground parking with wrap-around habitable space on at least the first floor – whether housing or office space – would make a project eligible for a bonus, the Commission members agreed.

Kirk Bishop of Duncan Associates, another consultant on the downtown plan, said such wraparounds not only improve the look of a development, they also add “eyes on the street,” a safety feature advocated by some urban planners.

Tonight the Commission members may consider two approaches to discourage above-ground parking: limiting the height of any parking floor – such as 45 feet above the ground level, so that bigger structures would have to have underground parking – and putting a cap on the floor-area ratio (FAR), allowing only a certain percentage for parking.

Affordable housing: A bonus would be available if more affordable units than the number mandated in the City’s affordable-housing ordinance were constructed on-site.

Contributions to the affordable-housing fund, even if above the required amount, would not make a developer eligible for bonuses.

LEED ranking: Achieving a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a designation of the U.S. Green Building Council) ranking of silver or greater would qualify a project for a bonus. The higher the ranking above silver, the greater the bonus would be.

Johanna Nyden said, “There ought to be something that says, ‘This is a green zone.'”

Charles Staley said he did not know whether raising the sustainability bar so high was “worth it.”

Yet other members said they felt the LEED requirement would not be onerous to developers.

David Galloway said, “These [developments] may take two to three years. But by the time a building comes before us, other municipalities will have their own green building ordinances.”

Coleen Burrus said, “Developers say people want to live in Evanston – even in this market. So let’s make them act like it.”

Seth Freeman said, “We have a gold mine here and it’s called Evanston.”

Although the matter did not come to a vote, Plan Commission Chair James Woods said he thought LEED certification or silver rating should be a “minimum for any bonus. … [Being] LEED-certified is a no-brainer.” He said the additional cost for a certified-silver LEED building would be between 2 and 5 percent of the total.

Landmark preservation: Preserving Evanston landmarks – whether on-site or elsewhere or by contributing to a (not-yet-established) City landmark preservation fund – would make a project eligible for a bonus.

Ms. Nyden voted against making the contributions bonusable, saying she did not “want developers to buy their way out [of landmark preservation]. … If you contribute to off-site projects, the building itself might need something later, [but] the money would be all spent.”

Coleen Burrus said, “On-site development just benefits the developers themselves [because it enhances the value of their buildings].”

Carlos Ruiz, preservation coordinator for the City, said, “I feel that giving financial help may allow developers to alter rather than preserve buildings.”

Commission member Charles Staley said he felt bonuses “ought to derive and be part of the project, not be scattered all over Evanston.”

Open Space: Developers would have three ways to be eligible for bonuses under the “open space” category. One way would be to contribute to a general fund that would be used to enhance existing public parks or open spaces in the downtown area, such as Oldberg Park, along Clark Street; Raymond Park, just south of Grove Street; or Fountain Square. Mr. LaMotte said the City’s Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee (SPAARC) could help with the process of deciding which park or parcel would benefit from the contributions.

A second way to bonus eligibility would be for a developer to improve an open space adjacent to the project in such a way as to be deemed a “bonusable” public benefit. The third way to a bonus would be for a developer to “chip out” a corner of the development to make a public plaza; the developers of the Chandler building at Davis Street and Orrington Avenue enlarged the plaza there when they renovated the building several years ago.

Lawrence Widmayer, an associate member of the Commission, said he agreed that making public plazas and open space could make a project eligible for bonuses, and it “could work out if staff recommendation was part of the process.”

Ms. Nyden, who did not support much of the open-space eligibility, said, “If the public is going to benefit down the road, [the benefit] ought to be in the [project itself]. I’m concerned about developers’ being able to ‘buy’ their way into improving the area around their building for [only] a couple of years.” She said she felt that one-time items, such as creating open space or landmark preservation, would dilute the public benefit. “They’re one-time items and they benefit the developer more than the public,” she said.

Streetscape Enhancement: Developers who enhance the streetscape along an entire block or along both facing sides of a block would be eligible for a bonus.

Affordable Office Space: Developers whose projects include affordable office space (sometimes called “Class B office space,” because it has fewer amenities than prime offices space) would be eligible for a bonus.

The Plan Commission meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in City Council chambers.

The Plan Commission members decided not to award a bonus to a developer for either public art installation or contributions to support local arts organizations.

Mr. Woods said he felt developers chose their own art for their own buildings, and “if they want to put public art on their buildings, they just don’t get a bonus for it.”

During the discussion, Mr. LaMotte urged the members to consider that the existing public process for review of public art could be used for evaluating eligibility for bonuses. That way, he said, there would be public input and possibly a public benefit. “Public art can be very slippery – ‘eye of the beholder’ and all that – but use your process,” he added.

Mr. Galloway said, “Design professionals and others in Evanston have been encouraging the City to develop a master plan for art work. There are places and views in the City that would benefit from a piece of art as a focal point. However, it’s exceedingly difficult for us to achieve that, given that these places lie in other [private] properties and the funds available are so extraordinarily limited, so we often find now the only art we’re getting is the art a developer is willing to put on his own property – which may or may not be … a piece of art. … So I think there is great potential for this [bonus-qualifying money] to go into a fund so when the City has a master plan, where locations of public art would really, truly benefit the streetscape and improve the connectivity from one side of the railroad tracks to the other – I think it could be very beneficial.”

Mr. Galloway also said he supported, as an item eligible for bonuses contributions, a fund to “restore the old Varsity Theater [concealed in the building on Sherman Avenue that houses the Gap store] for a performing arts center.”

Nonetheless, the vote was against allowing bonuses for supporting arts organizations or contributing to public art. Coleen Burrus said her “no” vote was “not that I am against arts, but why put a higher value on arts rather than, for example, education?”

Design Appearance Review: When and How

Plan Commission members appeared to agree at their July 16 meeting on the need for some sort of review process for downtown developments. Commission member Stuart Opdycke said, “”I would like an opportunity for someone – the Plan Commission or Design Evanston [for example] – to be able to say to a developer, ‘This is an ugly building and it should not go up.'””

While some members appeared to agree with Mr. Opdycke’s sentiments, they continued to work through the process of deliberating the best path to that end.

Design review at present is performed by the City’s Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee (SPAARC), composed of several City staff members and, typically, one professional architect. SPAARC committee members generally focus on the site plan rather than the appearance of the building, said Dennis Marino, interim community development director for the City. They look at such things as lighting, setbacks, safety, landscaping and signage, he said; there is very little appearance review.

Several years ago, on the advice of Corporation Counsel Jack Siegel, City Council rejected a proposal for binding appearance review. At present, developments seeking zoning relief are reviewed as planned developments on a case-by-case basis. The planned development review process is a negotiated process through which zoning or other relief is secured in exchange for public benefits.

John LaMotte of the Lakota Group told the Plan Commission members that the form-based zoning code, which informs the downtown plan, can incorporate sufficient standards and guidelines as to eliminate some of the “”contentious”” aspects of that process.

Some of the “”contentiousness”” comes in the form of public comment, which Commission member Coleen Burrus said she felt was beneficial. When neighbors weigh in about the impact of a development on a neighborhood, she said, it helps gives Commission members greater insight into the project.

Mr. LaMotte said, “”Form-based zoning can provide definite guidelines to take away the unpredictability, the contentiousness and the negotiation,”” he said. “”It will give [City] staff the first cut [at design appearance review] by giving them the tools. It will save City Council and the Plan Commission time and energy – it’s not meant to take away power but to cut down on contentiousness.”” A happy medium, he said, would have guidelines that provide a “”wire framework”” for designers and allow for “”sustainability and creativity.””

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...