City Council reached a compromise on Dec. 13 on a controversial measure that would have made religious uses a special use in virtually every zoning district in Evanston. Aldermen amended the City’s zoning ordinance to require that storefront churches like those that line Howard Street obtain special use permits in certain business districts (B-1 and B-3). Churches will remain permitted uses in commercial (“C”) zones.
The proposed ordinance was suggested by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, as an economic development tool to promote a vibrant commercial and business corridor along Howard Street. Over the past several weeks, Ald. Rainey has repeatedly told City Council that the storefront churches along Howard stifle business uses, because they are shuttered or gated and dark during normal business hours and only open for short periods of time, often late at night. Without foot traffic during business hours, many retailers struggle to stay afloat.
Ald. Rainey was joined at times by Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, who spoke about similar issues along Simpson Street near Green Bay Road. While on Sundays the streets are packed with cars, during the week they are empty, she said.
Ald. Rainey’s proposal, however, sparked protest from a consortium of local religious leaders organized and led by Rev. Mark Dennis Jr. of Second Baptist Church. Saying that most churches start from humble, storefront beginnings, Rev. Dennis and others appeared before Council often since the ordinance’s introduction to oppose it.
A walking tour, a special mid-week afternoon City Council meeting, and three City Council meetings failed to produce a compromise leading to a final vote Monday night. “I have some substantial reservations about the proposal,” said Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, initiating deliberations. He said if the measure passed, the only area in the City in which churches would be a permitted use would be on the Northwestern lakefront campus.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, and Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, both indicated problems with the overly broad nature of the proposed ordinance. Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, supported Ald. Wilson, saying the measure had given him “great thought and much nervousness from the start.”
After bandying about a number of proposed compromises, including limiting the restriction to uses under 4,000 square feet, the Council agreed that the new special use restriction should only apply in B-1 and B-3 zoning districts. The only B-3 district in Evanston is the very corridor of Howard that started the controversy – between Ridge and Chicago avenues. B-1 districts are more prevalent, and include the Simpson Street section in Ald. Holmes’ ward.
The compromise passed 7-2, with Alds. Wilson and Tendam voting “no.” The City zoning department has received three requests for new storefront churches on Howard Street just in the past couple of weeks, said Ald. Rainey. The question to be sorted out will be whether or not they slipped in under the wire, just before the ordinance went into effect.