A meeting held on Dec. 7 to seek a compromise between the City and a coalition of local religious leaders ended with the ministers speaking softly but making it apparent that they had friends and backers with a big stick.

Posted as a special City Council meeting in case more than three aldermen attended, the meeting was scheduled at the request of the ministers’ group so they could “add language” to a proposed zoning amendment. As proposed, the amendment would require new churches wishing to locate in a business district to go through the “special use” zoning process. It would also affect existing churches in those areas that wished to expand. Current zoning allows churches as special or permitted uses in 26 of the City’s 34 zoning districts; they are not allowed in the remaining eight zoning districts.

The amendment was proposed by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, to address the proliferation of storefront churches along Howard Street. She said such a proliferation of churches – there are seven in one block of Howard Street – limits economic development. Churches are closed during the week, when other businesses are open, she said, placing a barrier to developing a critical mass of potential customers in an area during the week. Since the proposal, others have said that the Dewey/Simpson/Dodge area is also becoming sated with churches – 11 in that area – with resulting similar economic development limitations.

Muffy McAuley and John Leineweber, who have developed live/work studios in the Simpson/Dewey/Ashland area said the area is too quiet during the week and packed on Sundays. There is a dearth of pedestrians walking to businesses because the number of churches is crowding out businesses.

The added zoning “hoop” of requiring a special use permit for new churches in business districts, Ald. Rainey and others say, will help promote balanced economic growth in the area. “Seven of anything on one block is too many,” Ald. Rainey said.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she felt “there is a lot of good in the special use process. Neighbors can say whether they want you here or not.”

Local lawyer and activist Jeff Smith pointed to Jewelers’ Row in Chicago, a deliberate cluster of jewelry stores on Wabash Avenue in Chicago. He also said he felt that churches clustered to an area “because of the market. Those are the market conditions.”

Pastor Richard Moseley of Hemenway United Methodist Church, said that if the “permitted use,” now available in 10 zoning districts, were changed to “special use,” then new churches would not be permitted as of right anywhere in Evanston.

The ministers’ group – representing “Evanston Pastors’ Fellow, concerned clergy, religious and civic leaders – and others who support their position say that there is no proven connection between economic development and churches (or a limited number of them).

Pastor Mark Dennis, who leads Second Baptist Church, initially read a statement indicating that the ministers’ group believed that the proposed zoning change unduly burdened religious freedom in violation of the First Amendment and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act.

“That sounds like a stance,” said City Manage Wally Bobkiewicz. He asked whether the group had any language they would like to add to the proposed amendment.
Pastor Dennis said, “Keep in mind: The burden is not on us to correct the language.” 

 “What about requiring special use for only some of the areas?” proposed Mr. Bobkiewicz. Pastor Dennis indicated his groups would be willing to discuss such an idea. Mr. Bobkiewicz added, “You have my commitment as City Manager that we should talk more.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, told the ministers’ group that aldermen have to balance the churches’ considerations against the needs of the entire Evanston community. “You have to consider those of us who have to make decisions for the entire community. … We will come forth with a policy that will advance the objectives of economic development. I don’t think we have been discriminating at all.”

Pastor Dennis said his group “does not want to hold the City up. … We would not mind being part of development. Our group will support you as our leaders. The due process issue [one of the Constitutional objections mentioned by the pastors’ group] has been mitigated by your willingness to talk.” He added, though, “Other groups have contacted us and they will do what they want to do. … You sound the alarm and you step back. We have sounded the alarm.”

City Council is expected to vote on the proposed zoning amendment on Dec. 13.

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...