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Spurred in part by the rejected 831 Emerson St. housing project, the Planning and Development Committee considered expanding downtown zoning designations north of the current border at Emerson at its April 18 meeting. The planning area could reach as far north as Noyes Street to the north, but is generally contained between Ridge and Sherman to the west and east.
The City’s Administrator of Planning and Zoning Damir Latinovic said the City adopted a downtown plan several years ago based upon form-based zoning, but never adopted form-based zoning ordinances. The plan set up 13 separate downtown “subareas,” including several core downtown areas, traditional downtown, and edge or transition areas.
Form-based zoning considers “the physical spaces the buildings define,” said Mr. Latinovic. Even though zoning changes were never codified, he said, the City planners still consult the downtown plan regularly, if not every day.
The City receives proposals for development north of Emerson, not just the 831 Emerson St. development, he said. The future plans of Northwestern University must also be considered, he said. “Whatever Northwestern does will have a large impact on downtown planning,” he said.
Northwestern’s housing plan contemplates new rules requiring freshman and sophomore students to live on campus. Yet the University’s housing master plan includes a relatively modest number of new student rooms, he said, from 4,047 in 2017 to 4,511 in 2025, despite the fact that five new or renovated residence halls are in the works. There are about 12,000 total undergraduate and graduate students on the Evanston campus.
Surveys of public transportation usage have shown a huge increase at the Foster Street L, with riders increasing 38% overall between 2005 and 2015, and over 50% on the weekends. The data shows riders using the system for leisure as well as work and school, signaling a group of residents who do not have cars, said Mr. Latinovic.
Council agreed to pursue a more intentional approach to planning north of Emerson Street. Alderman Judy Fiske said the area around Foster Street is “a sensitive area that includes a lot of affordable housing. … The area that is of main concern to me” is between Emerson and Foster streets and Maple and Sherman avenues.
Others were less convinced of a need to change anything. “I guess I don’t understand what the problem is,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. Zoning is in place covering the area in question, he said. “I’m more concerned about what the neighbors have to say about what, if anything, is the problem,” he said.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, disagreed. “I actually do think there is a problem here,” she said. Without zoning clarification, Council faces “one battle after another over every single parcel. Clearly this is a hot area for potential development.”
Staff proposed a series of public meetings to discuss possible zoning changes, including a potential new downtown “subarea” north of Emerson Street. Council agreed with the proposal, but not without caveats.
“I don’t want to spend public money doing a study for this,” said Ald. Fiske, adding later, “I want to get on the record by saying I would not in any way support [creating a tax-increment financing (TIF) in] this area.” She suggested the Council take a TIF “off the table.”
Ald. Wilson also said he felt there should be no public funding in the area, and a TIF would be considered public funding.
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, agreed that there should be no TIF in the area.
Public meetings should begin shortly, possibly kicked off by a joint First/Fifth Ward meeting seeking community input for planning a downtown expansion north of Emerson Street.