Much has been said about the proposed downtown plan, and there is doubtless a lot more that will be said – by citizens and aldermen, at the very least.
One aspect that will surely merit comment is the concept of form-based zoning – that is, zoning based on specific guidelines, the context of adjacent properties and siting on the property rather than on use-determined districts.
When the building boom began in Evanston nearly 10 years ago, City government was eager for money; and aesthetics, compatibility and scale were traded at times for a sound economic base. Thus the planners, citizens and consultants had to work with a clutter of buildings in the downtown area, some of whose names are more harmonious than their design – it was the downtown they had, not the downtown some may have wanted.
At times in the past, planned-unit developments (PUDs) were approved on what appeared to be whim rather than reason, resulting in unattractive structures that offer a long-term detriment to the community and whose developers have still not been held accountable – nor are they likely to be – for promises made but not kept.
The new zoning concept replaces the approval of PUDs with what could amount to a checklist for aldermen specified in great detail in the new zoning itself.
With specific guidelines for new projects, this new code holds the risk of reducing the City Council’s discretion in reviewing projects and possibly of decreasing the extent and scope of community input – one of Evanston’s favorite pastimes.
A countervaling benefit of a more detailed zoning code is that developers would have more objective standards in planning their projects, which could streamline the review process and help promote a harmonious downtown.
The plan also details a system of bonuses for developers who chose to add one or more specified benefits to their projects, allowing additional height, density or floor-area ratio in exchange. Two of these “bonusable” add-ons – more on-site affordable housing than is mandatory, and affordable office space – will go a long way toward preserving the economic mix of downtown commerce and the social mix we say we prize in Evanston.
Other laudable aspects of the plan include an emphasis on the pedestrian experience, asking for wide sidewalks, attractive streetscapes and large, inviting storefront windows; and the mandate for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design)-certified buildings in rehab or new construction.
Height is still a problem. The proposed height-limits in the plan, even most of those without bonuses, seem too tall for the downtown of either today or tomorrow.
Buildings in the so-called transition zones should be buffers between the bustling commercial downtown and the quiet of the neighborhoods; they need not be so tall as to be barriers.
There are other reasons we may not wish to have those tall transitional buildings: Evanston’s condo boom is stalled. Several projects originally approved for completion this year or next have received approval to defer construction for another two years.
Further, although we welcome the residents of these new condominium and apartment buildings, it seems clear that residential property will not provide a sufficient tax base for the City going forward.
We cannot hope to solve our economic problems on the backs of condominium development. In addition to new residents, the City needs to attract and nurture small businesses to create a mixed tax base, not one dependent on any one area.
These suggestions would be easy to implement, and we hope Council members will consider them seriously. The Plan Commission members, loyal and concerned citizens and the City’s consultants have expended their time, interest, intelligence, creativity and concern on this project.
We hope the Council take citizen comment sesriously – including comment about Fountain Square and its surroundings (a subject for a another editorial) – and make thoughtful changes to the draft plan, so that, if and when the economy turns around, we will be able to use it as a map for the 21st Century.