The controversial amendments to the Green Building Ordinance, proposed by City staff before the Feb. 14 City Council meeting, led to a compromise solution. Under the compromise, a developer of a project between 10,000 and 20,000 square feet need not pursue official “LEED” certification, but may instead proceed under an alternative, City-administered program by selecting sustainable building practices from a list of such practices in the City Code. But the compromise may not be enough to keep the development it was designed to save in the City.
The proposed amendment first became public the Thursday before the Feb. 14 meeting. No one in the green community or on City Council knew of the proposed changes prior to that time, as City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz decided to keep the amendment process entirely in-house to that point.
One observer said during citizen comment that the proposed amendment would have “crumbled” the ordinance. It would have allowed a developer to plead “economic hardship” and turn the matter over to City Council to craft an alternative to LEED certification. [LEED certification requires a developer to obtain independent, third-party verification of green building practices. Several Council members and the City’s economic development team often call the certification process “expensive.”]
Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, revealed during the Feb. 28 meeting that the amendment came about in an effort to work with Gordon Foods. The proposed location, she said, was 2420 Oakton, across from the Home Depot. According to several sources, Gordon Foods claimed the Green Building Ordinance made it too expensive to build in Evanston.
A hastily called meeting of City staff and environmental “stakeholders” took place Wednesday morning, Feb. 23. Despite what Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, called short notice and the inconvenience of meeting at 8:30 a.m. during the work week, 10 community members (from the “environmental, building and development community” according to the staff memo) joined City staff to discuss a compromise. Meeting for roughly two hours, the group was able to reach consensus on modifying the ordinance that had been some three years in the making.
Under the compromise, a new building between 10,000 and 20,000 square feet may proceed under the regiment provided in the ordinance for renovations rather than new construction. The renovation code allows developers to select items from a list of green building practices attached to the ordinance as exhibit A and known by its unwieldy acronym ESBMIR (The City of Evanston Sustainable Building Measures for Interior Renovations). The compromise amendment allows a developer to select 15 items from the ESBMIR list.
According to Ald. Burrus, City staff learned on Friday that even with the compromise in place, Gordon Foods found it too expensive to build in Evanston. Staff did not inform Council, said Ald. Burrus, until 4:30 p.m. Monday, or about an hour before Council meetings started. Rather than attempt further amendments to accommodate Gordon Foods, however, Council acted with an eye toward future developers.
Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, proposed a new Appendix B to the ordinance that would include sustainable building measures for new construction (to be known by the even more unwieldy ESBMNC). Ald. Rainey noted that the proposed Gordon Foods site includes a “slime pond” and buried rubble, and that the code gives a developer no credit for clean-up or remediation. Ald. Wilson’s proposed appendix would address that.
Timing and the process seemed to frustrate the environmental community – and Ald. Burrus – more than anything else. Nathan Kipnis of Citizens for a Greener Evanston said that he was not involved in many of the meetings over the two-plus years it took to create the ordinance, “but I was in on the four hours it took to solve it,” including the two hours to reach a compromise and an additional two-hour meeting with Gordon Foods. He called the timing “uncomfortable.’
Elizabeth Kinney of the Environment Board urged Council to direct the City Manager to consult with boards and committees before amending City ordinances. “There was not enough time for significant policy recommendation,” she said.
At the Feb. 14 meeting, Economic Development director Steve Griffin indicated that negotiations with the then-unidentified Gordon Foods had been ongoing for six months. Had the environmental stakeholders who reached a major compromise in two hours been brought in earlier, perhaps Ald. Wilson’s Appendix B could have been in place in time to save the project.
“Hopefully, [Gordon Foods] will be the only project we will lose because of this ordinance,” said Ald. Rainey, who did not propose any further amendments because she had agreed to the compromise at the Feb. 23 meeting.