Fountain Square

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First Published in the RoundTable on Feb. 18, 2009.

If or when the murky economic fog lifts, some residents say they fear the City’s downtown area may itself become darker and denser. The downtown plan – with its controversial 35-story height in the controversial downtown core, up-zoning of the 1000 block of Davis Street, reduced parking requirements for new residential developments and form-based zoning – was approved 6-3 at the Feb. 9 City Council meeting.

Several residents spoke angrily at the Council meeting, objecting to the added height and asking that Council members either reject the plan or defer the vote until the new Council would take over in May.

Three aldermen – Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, Steve Bernstein 4th Ward, and Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward – voiced their objections to the plan, but the six who approved the plan said little, except to defend themselves from criticism voiced during the citizen comment period.

Thus ended a process that began almost two years ago and included numerous public hearings and extensive, sometimes heated, debate before the City’s Plan Commission.

The Plan

The plan is intended to form the framework for downtown development over at least the next decade.

The plan addresses current and potential downtown Evanston, an area roughly described extending from Emerson Street south to Lake Street and from Hinman Avenue west to Ridge. It rezones much of the area, creating several new zoning districts and identifies areas for potential commerical development as well as for additional open spaces or plazas. It also calls for enhancing arts and cultural opportunities, promoting sustainable practices, including finding ways to decrease the use of automobilies and increase the use of other modes of transportation.

It incorporates several principles of “new urbanism” or “smart development,” such as dense development in the downtown core, emphasis on the pedestrian experience and form-based zoning. Form-based zoning is a design concept that assesses the contextual character of a proposed development – such as where it sits on the property, how large the setbacks are both at street level and above a certain height, and how it would fit with the buildings in the immediate area.

John LaMotte of the Lakota Group, one of the City’s consultants on the plan, said form-based zoning, with its very specific criteria, would facilitate the City’s review process. Under the plan the City’s Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee (SPARC) or a similar committee could have a stronger review process, which would obviate the need for the Plan Commission, as well as minimize citizen input and the need for Council debate, he said.

Ald. Bernstein, in enumerating his objections to the plan, said he would prefer more Council input into the review process. “I trust the next Council, but I don’t like form-based zoning. It’s for a tabula rasa, a new community with no development – not us. Downtown Evanston is vibrant; it’s just in a slowdown.” He also said he had “hoped some votes would change” between the Planning and Development Committee vote taken on Jan. 14.

Zones, Caps and Bonuses

The plan divides the downtown area into several zones, each of which has a certain allowable height or cap. The base height or density of a proposed project could be increased if a developer provided certain public bonuses. The plan describes the bonuses for each district and the amount of additional height or density allowed for each public benefit.

Ten specified public benefits would earn bonuses for a developer. A developer providing underground parking, for example, in the residential downtown, downtown or downtown core district, could receive up to a 25-percent bonus in height or floor-area ratio (FAR). Other public benefits that would garner benefits for the developer include whole-building sustainability, on-site affordable housing units (more than mandated by City ordinance) and the creation of public plazas.

The Core – 25-35 Stories

Most of the Plan Commission members found consensus in the bulk of recommendations in the plan. Alderman Edmund Moran, who chaired the Planning and Development Commitee, divided the plan into several sections, most of which found unanimous approval there.

Height, though, appeared to be the polarizing issue at both the Plan Commission and Council levels.

Five of the eight Plan Commission members voted against having a separate downtown core, but the majority aldermanic vote rejected that recommendation and not only created a downtown core but added height above the Plan Commission’s recommendation. The downtown core, essentially the Fountain Square block, is now a separate zone with a base (as-of-right) height of 25 stories and cap (with bonus) height of 35 stories, about 385 feet.

Ald. Wynne said at the Feb. 9 Planning and Development Committee meeting, “The central core is an insurmountable issue for me. The community has come out and stated they oppose it, and the Plan Commission voted 5-3 against the central core.” She also said, “There are many, many excellent points in the plan. … I regret that I can’t vote for it.” 

Ald. Tisdahl said at that committee meeting, “Twenty-five stories [the as-of-right height in the downtown core] is too much. It is too much to give away as of right. Public benefits [to accrue bonuses] should kick in earlier.”

Ald. Bernstein said, “With a 25-story base height, you’re giving away the store.”

Speaking for the Southeast Evanston Association, Beth Stefan said, “The creation of a central core comprised only of the Fountain Square block was opposed by both the Plan Commission and the majority of Evanston citizens who testified about development on the block. … We feel that the blatant disregard for the recommendation of the Plan Commission is in direct contradiction to good planning principles and ignores the desires of citizens who elected the Council.”

James Corirossi, president of the Downtown Residents Association, read the DRA’s position paper about the zoning districts: “We are very disappointed that the P&D Committee voted to … add a Central Core District, eliminating a major compromise in one short meeting.”

Economic Development?

Residential development appears to be a key part of the plan. In voicing their opposition to the plan, both Ald. Bernstein and Ald. Tisdahl said they felt that since the plan was initiated “when the condo market was hot,” it was no longer applicable to the City’s economic situation.

The DRA statement also decried the plan’s failure to encourace economic development. “[T]he plan does not sufficiently address the requirement for a comprehensive marketing plan which includes incentives to attract the appropriate mix of local and national businesses needed to sustain a vibrant City center for all Evanston residents and visitors.” The statement supported the creation of a performing arts venue in the downtown area, perhaps by restoring the Varsity Theatre.

At the end of the Council meeting, Ald. Moran thanked the consultants, Plan Commission members and other groups, saying, “This is a plan that people will resort to many times over the years, and that is due in large part to your good work.”