In 2007-08, hundreds of Evanston residents of the Central Street neighborhood participated, along with elected and appointed City officials, in an historic planning process. Thousands of hours, often on weekends or late into the night, were invested in visioning workshops sponsored by the City of Evanston, Plan Commission and subcommittee meetings, one-on-one discussions with staff, and City Council meetings.
The result was the Central Street Master Plan, the single largest plan ever adopted for so long an Evanston artery, and the Central Street Overlay District. The former, hailed by planners at the time as a singular achievement, was adopted unanimously by the City Council, and the overlay district was likewise enacted into law as City zoning, unanimously passed on January 28, 2008.
The planning process arose from a chorus of dismay at the time over a number of deviations from zoning under guise of “site development allowances” (“SDAs”) for “planned [unit] developments” (“PDs” or “PUDs”).
The abuse of those intended exceptions to planning had led to redevelopment out of step with the unique character of both the retail and residential areas along Central Street. In place of that ad hoc, unpredictable process, the Central Street Plan and re-zoning promised some certainty to residents and businesses that what would come in the future would be compatible with the neighborhood in which they had invested.
As a tradeoff, the Plan and rezoning afforded considerable “upzoning” and the possibility of greater density to a great many tracts.
Unfortunately, the guidance that the Plan was intended to give future developers has not had much chance to blossom. The collapse of the real estate bubble and the resultant deep and long recession, from which the Chicago area and the state have still not fully recovered, blunted most development of any kind.
Now, with pent-up demand and capital both seeking outlets, we can expect to see renewed interest in developing underused properties, including on Central Street. Unfortunately, nearly all of the City staff, as well as most of the Council and commission volunteers who oversaw the Central Street planning process, have departed those positions, and are unfamiliar with the details of the plan and zoning, let alone their history and purpose.
As a result, some have expressed misunderstanding of some of the principal purposes of the planning, and have suggested, as with the recent proposal for 1620 Central, that the zoning’s ban on site development allowances in the overlay district be discarded so that the City can indulge the developer in over a dozen deviations from what the law allows, producing a building that will virtually fill the footprint of the lot.
While one principal purpose of the Plan was certainly to move toward form-based zoning in order to keep development contextual, another goal, equally important to residents, was to rein in the overpoliticized and non-transparent abuse of PDs and SDAs.
Such tools are legitimate when laying out entire subdivisions but little more than spot zoning when applied to one building on a block. Their ban from Central Street was well-debated, thought-out, and purposeful.
Then-Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl declared her desire to have Central Street “a sacred zone with no PUDs.” The Central Street Neighbors Association’s public analysis of the plan cited the ban on site development allowances as the first key feature to making the plan work.
It was not the fault of the residents, nor the City consultants, that the economy collapsed; if anything, the caution of community activists likely saved the City from some costly and unsightly “holes in the ground” during the years no one was building.
Now that lending and interest are on the ascendancy, the enormous work and deliberate vision of so many should not be tossed aside for the first proposal that comes along.
It would be one thing if Central Street had demonstrably lagged the rest of the City due to its zoning. But, on the contrary, property values along the corridor if anything weathered the recession better than most, storefront occupancy has been at a level many districts would celebrate, and the Plan itself received a nationwide award in 2013. Tinkering with this truly would be an instance of fixing something that isn’t broken.
Laws and plans both become meaningless if they are not enforced. Markets become skewed if participants know or assume that a government will grant regulatory exceptions on request.
But just as important as making law function is respecting the ideas, the passion, and the hard work of a community itself.
The best way for the City to honor the enormous and successful effort of all those who contributed to the heralded Central Street Master Plan is to give its ideas a chance to work.
Mr. Walsh is president of Central Street Neighbors Association.