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It should be simple, that axiom of rendering unto God and Caesar what is due to each, but modern civilization with its zoning laws can seem to entwine the two. A proposed ordinance that will likely be discussed by a City Council committee next month has several local ministers saying this is government tromping on sacred ground.

There are nearly 90 churches in Evanston, and the City Council will consider whether new or expanded churches will be subject to new zoning restrictions. Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey says she believes the commercial potential of Howard Street is hampered by the many churches there – seven on one block alone – because they take up storefront and street-front space but are closed during normal business hours.

“There should not be seven of anything on one block – that’s ridiculous,” she said.

Ald. Rainey proposed a zoning change that would require churches located in a business district that wish to expand or new churches planning to locate in a business district to go though the “special use” process. Churches already established in Evanston would not be affected by the changes, if approved, unless they expand or relocate to another business district.

A proposed ordinace incorporating these changes was scheduled for discussion at the Nov. 8 City Council meeting. A self-labeled “preacher posse” attended that meeting to protest the zoning change and asked that the vote on the proposed ordinance be deferred until the community could be involved. Ald. Rainey then invited her colleagues, the ministers and other interested parties on a tour of Howard Street east of Ridge Avenue.

On Nov. 16 a party of about 20 persons, including representatives of Second Baptist, First Presbyterian, Hemenway United Methodist, St. Mark’s Episcopal, St. Nicholas Parish and at least one of the storefront churches, met at the Winners Evangelical Mission in the 700 block of Howard Street.

The religious institutions occupying these Howard Street storefronts did not appear to be mainstream, but their signs identified them as either Christian or Jewish: Schekina Christian Center, Mountain of Mercy, Jesus First All Nations, Winners Evangelical Mission, New Hope and YHWH and YAHSHUA’s Temple.

Pointing to a tired-looking iron grating on one of the storefront churches Ald. Rainey said, “This to me is a statement that this is an unsafe place – either that or there is no interest in being part of the community.”

On the walk, the alderman also pointed out many thriving businesses on Howard Street, some of which have been there for many years, and made a point of comparing them with the churches. Stopping in front of the Howard Street Animal Hospital, she said, “Every pet I ever had [spent its last hours] here.” She introduced the group to one of the owners of Mayfair Beauty Supply, who joined the walk for a time, and pointed out other thriving businesses in the area: Apple the Second (clothing), North Suburban Auto Supply, Sherwin Williams and the 415 Howard apartment complex.

Most of the ministers on the walk appeared to feel targeted by the alderman and the proposed ordinance. “You’re ridiculing us. Your coming here is anti-church,” said Pastor Henry Samuels of Jesus First All Nations Church.

Pastor Richard Mosley of Hemenway United Methodist Church told the RoundTable he thought Ald. Rainey’s concern about empty churches was a “fallacious argument.” Most churches appear to be empty during the week, he said, because “we’re out where the people are. … The real injustice is that City Council is trying to pass an ordinance that will affect all churches.” Both he and Pastor Mark Dennis of Second Baptist Church expressed a wish for further dialogue with the City and the community.

Ald. Rainey and Dennis Marino of the City’s department of community and economic development said the ordinance would not affect any church in Evanston as it now stands.

“We’re not targeting churches. … This will have no effect on your church unless you want to add a second floor or expand,” Ald. Rainey told the ministers, adding that some businesses, such as certain restaurants, must go through the special-use process.

Some on the walk distinguished between the churches themselves and the buildings that housed them, most of which are owned by an absentee landlord. Pastor Mosley said he thought the City should contact the building owners to have them improve the storefronts.

Jeff Murphy of the City’s building division told the RoundTable that most of the buildings, including many of the churches, on both sides of Howard Street are owned by Universal Realty, whose principal lives out of state.

Police Chief Richard Eddington said one way to look at the problem was to “take churches out of the equation and talk about unoccupied structures,” which can make a neighborhood or business district unattractive. “I sense a concern about the look of the neighborhood,” he added.

“When buildings are closed, we don’t have good eyes on the street,” said Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes, referring to sociologist Jane Jacobs’s view of the neighborhoods.

Even if all the churches retain the status quo, prospective new churches would not be welcome on Howard Street, Ald. Rainey indicated. She would prefer to see commercial growth. “This is a TIF [tax-increment financing] district we created from Ridge to the tracks. We want to use [the TIF increment] to expand.”

“Is it fair to say that one of your goals is economic development?” asked Pastor Dennis. “It’s the total goal,” responded the alderman.

The Preacher Posse Returns to City Council

By Shawn JonesEighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey’s crusade against the storefront churches that line Howard Street continued at the Nov. 22 City Council meeting, but it ran into into stiff resistance both on Council and in the audience.

Council delayed, for at least three weeks, a zoning change that would require religious institutions to go through the special use process rather than having the right to open in commercial districts as a matter of right.

Preachers lined the back row of the left side of Council chambers. Reverend Mark Dennis of Second Baptist Church spoke on behalf of the storefront churches. Several ministers joined Ald. Rainey on a tour of the Howard Street corridor at issue last week, and he said he understood the importance of economic development to the community. But the proposed ordinance goes too far in singling out places of worship, he said.

The proposed change had advocates other than Ald. Rainey. Developer Muffy McCauley said the problem is not limited to Howard Street, saying a proliferation of storefront churches up and down Simpson Street has driven small businesses away. Restaurants, dry cleaners, and small retail shops “”can’t make it when no one is there except on Sunday and maybe Wednesday,”” she said.

At City Council, Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptist, 2nd Ward, asked that Rev. Dennis’ group be given the opportunity to propose alternative language to that in the current proposed ordinance. Ald. Rainey passionately fought for a vote, at times interrupting Ald. Jean-Baptiste. She said the community of faith had time to shape the ordinance, but “”no one reached out to me.””

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th ward, said he had reservations. The difficulty of expansion or renovation for existing, non-conforming uses (as all churches without special use permits in commercial zones would be if the ordinance passes) should be addressed, he said.

Reverend Richard Mosley, Jr. of Hemenway United Methodist Church agreed after the meeting, saying something as straightforward as renting a parking lot from a neighboring business could become a logistical and financial burden if the ordinance passed. “”To me, they need an economic development plan”” and not zoning restrictions, he added.

Ald. Wilson went further, though. “”We should look at why we have so many churches in these neighborhoods. Landlords are desperate for tenants. … [We should] consider the economic reasons … perhaps there’s another reason for this,”” he said.

The measure was held waiting for input from City spiritual leaders, and for Council to consider whether storefront churches are the egg or the chicken of economic stagnation.

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...