The “wedding cake” trumped the “fallen soufflé” as the chosen form for a downtown at the Jan. 14 Planning and Development Committee meeting.

By a 6-2 vote, aldermen voted to allow a maximum downtown height of 35 stories in a newly created Central Core district – the Fountain Square block.

Maximum heights in adjoining core districts will be 15 stories in the West Core and 21 stories in the East Core, as recommended by the Plan Commission, according to a unanimous vote of the eight aldermen who attended the special meeting (Seventh Ward Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl was absent).

Building heights in the draft downtown plan are calculated on a system of bases and bonuses: A developer may extend the base, or “as-of-right,” height of a project by providing one or more specified public benefits (such as underground parking, affordable office space, a contribution to a preservation fund). The “maximum” height is the height achievable through the provision of bonuses.

Core Height

With about 11 feet per story, the maximum height of 35 stories in the central core translates to about 385 feet, said John LaMotte of the Lakota Group, one of the City’s consultants on the downtown plan.

Only Alderman Melissa Wynne, Third Ward, and Steve Bernstein, Fourth Ward, voted against a separate downtown core and the 385-foot height limit there. She added, “Having read through the transcript [of months of Plan Commission hearings], I know there was a disagreement at the Plan Commission and in the community. I think the community has come out over and over again and expressed their opinion.”

Height in the downtown area was a controversial topic both in testimony before and within the Plan Commission. Four members were in favor of a 365-foot maximum height in the core; four others supported a 185-foot maximum height. In what appeared to be a compromise vote, the Plan Commission recommended (5-3) a 275-foot or 25-story height limit in the downtown core.

Ald. Bernstein said he felt that 385 feet was too high and that if the height in the Central Core was lowered, then heights in the adjacent cores could also be lowered to keep the “wedding cake” form.

Base Height

A further discussion of what the base or as-of-right height should be was resolved by the same 6-2 split.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, initially proposed a 42-story maximum in the downtown core but accepted an amendment by Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes for the 35-story maximum height. After the vote on the maximum height in the downtown core was taken, Ald. Wynne asked to clarify the base height – the as-of-right height to which bonus height could be added.

She proposed “that we follow the Plan Commission and have a base height of 16 stories. [The form of the downtown plan should not be] a wedding cake [but] a fallen soufflé.”

Procedurally, though, Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, who chairs the Planning and Development Committee, and Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said since Ald. Rainey had proposed the maximum height, she ought to be able to propose the base height.

Since the downtown plan is based on a system of base heights that can be extended by a developer’s providing one or more specific public bonuses in a project, the maximum height achievable with bonuses is somewhat dependent on the base height.

Ald. Rainey said she felt a developer could not “achieve maximum height [385 feet] we [allow] if we have 16 stories. … [The Fountain Square block] is a developable site, and the last thing we want to do is block development.” Her motion, that the base height be 25 stories, passed 6-2, again with Alds. Wynne and Bernstein voting “no.”

Although the City Council has ultimate approval of the downtown plan, inasmuch as six aldermen voted for the downtown core and the added height, there may be enough votes at the Council level to approve the 35-story, 385-foot maximum height in the downtown core.

Procedural Guide

Ald. Moran, who now chairs the Planning and Development Committee, had prepared a six-page memorandum for his colleagues, which he said was “offered as a summary description of the elements of the plan that I view as requiring our specific attention and votes, with some suggestions as to how to proceed.”

Using that as a guide, the aldermen voted on general statements about the downtown plan, Fountain Square and other downtown areas.

On the downtown plan, the aldermen agreed unanimously that “… downtown Evanston is the vest location within the City to accommodate new growth, because of its exceptional transportation infrastructure, its diverse mix of uses and its central location relative to goods, services, cultural facilities and jobs.”

Parks, public art, way-finding, a downtown circulator and a conceptual strategy for form-based zoning in the downtown area remained on the agenda at adjournment of the meeting.

Ald. Moran told the RoundTable he felt “very good” about the committee’s progress and said he is “hopeful that we’ll be able to finish it up very soon.” He added the plan was “very well done and … gives us insights about how we can make downtown even better.”


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...