At the Dec. 4 meeting of the Planning and Development Committee, residents weighed in on the long and the short of the proposed downtown plan. They expressed concerns about the long, tall building heights the plan allows and they worried that Evanston would come up short with a lack of incentives for economic development.
Evolution of the Downtown Plan
Nearly three years from start to finish, the plan is composed of a framework for development for the next two decades, a new zoning concept that incorporates guidelines for new developments, and a system of project bonuses that would qualify developers for additional height or density.
Several residents said they are concerned that the draft downtown plan should have a greater focus on economic development and enticements to attract local business.
A series of design charettes in 2006 started the major public input for the downtown plan. City officials termed the process “planning everybody’s downtown.” Working with a team of consultants and City staff members, the Plan Commission labored over the plan for several months and heard several hours of community comment.
The final plan was forwarded recently to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee. (See the Oct. 29 issue of the RoundTable.)
Although all Plan Commission members approved the document, they sometimes were at odds over building heights. They finally agreed on a cap-and-bonus system, under which they determined a base height for each of the downtown zoning areas (the “cap”) and a series of additions to a project that would qualify a developer for additional height (the “bonus”).
The bonuses can be aggregated, so a project could gain as much as 50 percent more height through bonuses. Sustainable projects, underground parking, affordable office space and more-than-mandated affordable housing built onsite count as “bonusable items” in the draft plan.
Economic Development, Upzoning and Downtown Character
The greatest overall concerns expressed at the Dec. 4 meeting appeared to center around economic growth, allowable height and the character of the new downtown. Some speakers said they felt the economic development component was not sufficiently strong.
Jim Coriossi, president of the downtown residents’ association, said his group is concerned that “the plan does not include incentives to attract local and national businesses,” and that there should be greater focus on economic development.
As an example, the group suggested that the City “spend more time on restoring the Varsity Theatre” – a topic that has been brought up from time to time in discussing downtown redevelopment. A portion of the old movie theater is said to remain intact on Sherman Avenue, in the building that houses The Gap.
Other suggestions made by the downtown residents’ association were to move the Civic Center downtown, to commission an “independent parking study,” to establish uniform height for all the transitional/edge districts of the downtown area, and to reconfigure the zoning districts to “reflect the wishes of downtown residents.”
A separate but connected concern was whether the City could in fact use additional high-rise residential developments.
Jeanne Lindwall, who said she worked on the 1989 downtown plan, also questioned whether additional residential units would build the tax base sufficiently.
“Keep development in perspective. It was unrealistic to assume that building lots of condos in downtown Evanston was going to lower people’s taxes. … If the increasing value of the condos is increasing values in surrounding areas, you may not have had as big a [reduction in real-estate taxes] as you expected. Look at [the questions] … ‘How much is too much?’ ‘How big is too big?’”
Ms. Lindwall, a mayoral hopeful, said, “Nothing gets signatures on my petition [to be a candidate for mayor] faster than to let [people] know I’ve been working against the [proposed] tower [at 708 Church St.].”
Downtown resident Glenn Gray said he was “very concerned that a 38-story tower is not supported by citizen comments.” He added, “At the downtown charettes I heard not one person say they wanted more and higher skyscrapers n Evanston. … Do not consider a higher building in the core,” he said to the aldermen. “It will cause people to lose faith in you.”
Third-generation business-owner Michael Poulous, who said his father had built the North Shore Hotel, said liquor, not condominium development, was responsible for the recent boom in downtown Evanston.
“What I see is a plan for more [high-rises]. Where does this clamor for more high-rises come from? Not from the people – from the developers. We don’t need high-rises to help economic development.” He suggested instead “mid-rise buildings that serve a variety of purposes.”
One resident said liquor, not condominium development, was responsible for the recent boom in downtown Evanston.
Community activist Jeff Smith questioned whether there had been sufficient public comment and whether that comment had been incorporated into the final draft of the plan. He also said he felt the plan has “massive upzoning,” and “when you change zoning, you change the game.”
He said with the proposed base heights – which are in some cases substantially higher than the existing buildings in those areas – “you’re incentivizing development [by allowing greater height and density in as-of-right zoning] and then letting the market decide. … We’ve been promised revenue, but we’re seeing a lot of holes – holes in the ground for developments that will be delayed for years and fiscal holes in the ground into which the American taxpayer is being asked to shovel money.”
His specific suggestions for the Council included holding focus groups with persons who “have not been heard from,” such as commuters and downtown workers; holding citizen comment open for written responses; and “scaling back” the base heights in the transition zones.
He added, “The community has the right, if not the obligation, to determine what kind of town it’s going to be.”
Jonathan Perman, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, questioned whether the proposed plan provides “enough stimulus for economic development in downtown Evanston.” He asked that the Council consider the draft downtown plan in the context of the recently approve climate action plan.
“It must offer opportunity for transit-oriented development and [decreased] parking requirements [in residential developments],” both of which, he said, will help cut down on the community’s greenhouse-gas emissions. He also said, “Overall, the plan is a good one. It recognizes land-use principles that have worked and the future challenges that Evanston will have to face to attract shoppers, jobs and businesses.”
Two men who said they own buildings on West Davis Street said they felt they were being shortchanged in the economic boom promised by the additional height allowances elsewhere in the plan. As proposed, the maximum height in that traditional zone is six stories.
Reed Beidler said, “I have questions about West Davis as a traditional zone. … To designate a zone that abuts the Metra and CTA tracks as ‘traditional’ seems to fly in the face of logic.”
Scott Steinman, who said he, too, owns a building in the West Davis traditional area, said he “want[ed] to be treated fairly in whatever opportunities might be coming up, but [they are] limited.”
A special Planning and Development Committee meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Jan. 9 to discuss the downtown plan.