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At a special meeting on Oct. 27, the members of the City’s Plan Commission signed off on the new downtown plan, which is intended to be a framework for growth and development there over the next 20 years. The plan now moves to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee, and then to City Council, which will have the ultimate authority to approve, amend or reject the proposed plan.
The plan, which took nearly three years to develop, is based on the concept of new urbanism, two aspects of which are smart growth and form-based zoning.
Smart growth calls for a dense city center, with tall multi-unit residences, office space, retail and other urban amenities clustered around a downtown core, optimally near public transportation. Green elements of smart growth include adaptive re-use of buildings, incorporation of sustainable materials into new buildings and “multi-modal transportation,” that is, accommodation of bicycle and pedestrian traffic.
Form-based zoning would replace the City’s current zoning code. Form-based zoning focuses on the overall fit of a proposed development with the character of the area, the location of the building on the site itself, and the pedestrian experience (e.g., wide sidewalks, storefront windows).
To help relieve the massiveness of a tall and dense downtown area, the plan calls for wide sidewalks and for setbacks of a building’s upper stories, giving a ziggurat effect to new tall structures.
To encourage prospective developers to enhance the quality of life in the downtown area, the plan allows bonuses in the form of added height or density or relief from other requirements for developers who do one or more of the following in their developments: create more affordable housing than is mandated by the City code; create affordable office space; add above-ground parking wrapped by habitable space (that is, small offices on the outside and parking within); preserve landmarks; contribute financially to parks or public spaces; create public plazas and build gold or platinum LEED-certified buildings. LEED, Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design, is a designation of the U.S. Green Building Council, which issues the certification after a building has been constructed.
The Plan Commission recommended, though, that only developments with LEED pre-certification be allowed to apply for bonuses.
Height and Bonuses
The plan acknowledges both “traditional” and “transitional” districts bordering the downtown districts. The three- and four-story buildings along Davis Street west of the CTA and Metra tracks would fall into the traditional district, and the heights of these buildings would basically be maintained. Along the northern, eastern and southern borders, transitional districts (called “edge” districts in the plan) could have height up to 15 stories. Nonetheless, developers who earn bonuses prescribed in the plan would be eligible to build taller buildings in those areas.
As proposed, the maximum height in the areas around the downtown core ranges from a low of three stories with maximum of five with bonuses to a high of 15 stories with a maximum of 18 with bonuses. In the core the recommended height is 15 stories, with a maximum of 25 stories with bonuses.
The Plan Commission gained notoriety earlier this year with its contentious discussions about the maximum height the plan should allow on the Fountain Square block.
The purchase of the 708 Church St. building by developers James Klutznick and Tim Anderson – who also developed Sherman Plaza – and their proposal to build a 38-story residential/retail development, in tandem with their purchase and proposed rehab of the adjacent Hahn building, informed both public input and commission discussion.
Plan Commission member Stuart Opdycke lobbied his colleagues unsuccessfully to allow additional bonuses for a developer who would preserve and rehab the Hahn building – thus preventing, he said, more than one tower’s being built on the block. At present the Hahn building is a local landmark and protected under the City’s landmark code. Under that code, only the City Council can give permission for a developer to significantly change the exterior of the building or demolish it.
Architectural Review: ‘SPARC With Teeth’
Perhaps the most surprising element for the Council to consider will be the commission’s recommendation of architectural review for certain developments. While the Commission members appeared to stop short of mandating binding architectural review, they agreed that they would like to see the City’s Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee (SPARC) have greater purview and authority – “SPARC with teeth,” as some commission members termed it.
A few years ago the Council rejected a proposal for binding architectural review by a City-appointed board – both because corporation counsel Jack Siegel said the proposal might not be valid under state law at the time and because Council members appeared unwilling to cede some of their authority to another body. Commission members said the laws have been relaxed now, and “It’s a new day.”
Consensus among the commission members was that SPARC, which now reviews only the site plan, should also have oversight of architectural and design plans. Doing so would necessitate allowing SPARC members, whose recommendations are now only advisory, additional authority.
Commission members suggested that with these proposed changes in design and authority purview, SPARC might hold its meetings at night to make it more convenient for Plan Commission members and the public to attend, rather than in the daytime as is now the case.