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An effort to combat the proliferation of storefront churches along commercial corridors such as Howard Street ran into the coordinated opposition of a self-described “preacher posse” at Monday night’s City Council meeting. The proposed zoning changes, which would make new churches go through and be approved under the special-use zoning process rather than be permitted as a matter of right, were brought to Council at the behest of Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey and were held at the committee level for further debate after dozens of preachers opposed it – in person and by letter – at the citizen comment portion of the Nov. 8 City Council meeting.
Howard Street and its failure to blossom as a burgeoning commercial strip, said Ald. Rainey, led to her decision to seek the proposed zoning change. “What we have on Howard Street is stagnant economic development,” she said. Progress is being hampered by the storefront churches that line the corridor but are “shuttered” up to six days a week. “For example, on the 700 block of Howard there are seven storefront churches,” she said. When so much of a street is occupied by organizations that are closed and dark during normal business hours, it is much more difficult for the merchants and service providers in adjacent storefronts to attract customers, she said.
The Evanston Pastors’ Fellowship, called the “Preachers’ Posse” by a spokesman, however, urged Council “to postpone action” on the ordinance, calling it “an egregious act to pass such legislation without serious consideration of questions and concerns from all of Evanston’s houses of faith” in a letter presented to Council. Reverend Mark A. Dennis of Second Baptist Church, moderator of the group, cited Constitution rights and a lack of due process, called the measure “inappropriate,” and noted that 25 church leaders from a broad spectrum of the religious community –St. Nicholas Parish, the Salvation Army, First Presbyterian, Hemenway United Methodist and many others – stood with the Fellowship. “They are not affected by the ordinance, but they stand with us because some churches are targeted,” he said.
“Nobody is banning churches,” responded Ald. Rainey. “You are being misled.” Making churches a special use puts them in the same category as restaurants, daycare centers and numerous other uses, she said. If Hecky’s moves to Howard Street, she added, it would have to get a special-use permit.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, stepped almost gingerly into the debate. “We might be inadvertently creating impact that we’re not intending” with the ordinance, he said, suggesting that Council pull back and take a closer look before passing it. Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, agreed, moving to hold the matter in the Planning and Development Committee for further review.
“You cannot sentence Howard Street to its demise,” said Ald. Rainey. “In the last five years, there has not been one change. … Shame on you.” She then invited the pastors, Council, the public, and the press to meet with her to walk down Howard Street, “so you can see what is causing me so much pain.” The tour will take place during a weekday, and the time will be posted on the City’s website, she said.
Ald. Jean-Baptiste called for a more collegial and friendlier dialogue, adding, “I’m on Howard Street all the time. I understand your pain.”
“Well, then you’re not invited [on the tour],” shot back Ald. Rainey, tongue-in-cheek. Council held the ordinance for further review and perhaps for amendment. Anyone with an interest in joining Ald. Rainey’s upcoming tour of Howard Street churches, coming soon, should check the City’s website, www.cityofevanston.org.