Proposed expansion of Downtown Plan. Prepared by the City of Evanston  

On Sept. 26, Mark Muenzer, the City’s Director of Community Development, presented a proposal to modify the City’s 2009 Downtown Plan to the City’s Planning and Development Committee. The northernmost boundary of the current Downtown Plan is Emerson Street. The proposal would add an area north of Emerson Street, plus one relatively small triangular area south of Emerson Street, to the Downtown Plan.

The proposed new area is divided into five subareas – N, Na, O, P, and Q – shown on the accompanying map. Mr. Muenzer said, “The five proposed subareas should address community concerns for reduced density farther away from downtown and help define guidelines for appropriate height, density and types of uses in this area.”

The P&D Committee agreed on April 18 to consider expanding the Downtown Plan to include an area north of Emerson Street, and concurred with staff’s recommendation to gather community input on the issue. The impetus to do so grew out of the controversy surrounding a proposal to build a stepped 12-, 11- and 9-story development at 831 Emerson St. Many neighbors opposed the development, because it was north of Emerson, which they argued was a dividing line between the downtown area and residential areas. Neighbors feared that a development north of Emerson would have a domino effect and spawn more development to the north.

Mr. Muenzer said staff gathered community input at two meetings, one on May 18, which 75 people attended, and a second on June 15, attended by 35 persons. In addition, staff gathered feedback from major property owners in the area.

Mr. Muenzer said residents recognize there is development interest in the area north of Emerson Street, and “a lot [of residents] are interested in making sure that it is as compatible and contextual as possible with the residential areas that surround it.”

He said residents expressed a preference for creating transitional zones with lower heights for developments farther away from Emerson Street and from the Foster Street transit stop. Residents also expressed a desire that new buildings along Maple Avenue and Foster Street be constructed with masonry materials, and that more contemporary architecture be limited to the Emerson Street corridor.

Mr. Muenzer outlined staff’s proposal for each subarea, which he said is a “starting” point:

• Subarea N – This area, which is just north of Emerson between Maple Avenue and the alley just west of Sherman Avenue, would have mixed-use, Transit Oriented Developments (TODs) with a height range of 6-12 stories, said Mr. Muenzer. The developments would be subject to review by the Plan Commission, the P&D Committee, and City Council.

• Subarea Na – This area is just north of area N, and would also have mixed-use TODs, but would have building heights stepped down from the buildings in area N, and be in the range of 4-6 stories. Mr. Muenzer said he thought the area fronting on Foster and Maple would be a traditional neighborhood business district, with buildings more in the 4-5 story range. 

• Subarea O – The south end of this area abuts Emerson Street, and on the north it abuts a residential area. The building height in this area would step down from the height of buildings south of Emerson Street, and be in the 6-10 story range. “We recognize there might be concern on the higher end of that limit, but we felt at the beginning of this conversation that we didn’t want to limit it too much in terms of height,” said Mr. Muenzer.

• Subarea P – This area would be regarded as a traditional neighborhood business district, serving nearby residents and commuters, with a building height of 4-6 stories said Mr. Muenzer. He added, “I would think it would be more appropriate in the 4-story range,” because it is near residential areas. 

• Subarea Q – This is a relatively small triangular area occupied by a restaurant and a bank and a branch or a restaurant, just south of Emerson Street. Mr. Muenzer said staff may recommend that the City vacate a portion of Benson Avenue to make this site more developable in the future for a building in the 6-10 story range.

Mr. Muenzer emphasized the proposal is just a beginning conversation. “If you [the P&D Committee] were to allow this to proceed we would continue to refine the proposal,” he said.

Members of the P&D Committee did not comment on the proposal, but noted that the community had several opportunities to present input and would have an additional opportunity to present input on the proposal. The Committee authorized Mr. Muenzer to draft an amendment to the Downtown Plan and schedule a date for people to provide testimony on the draft before the Plan Commission in November or December, and then present a revised plan to the P&D committee in early 2017.

If an amendment to the Downtown Plan is approved, Mr. Muenzer said staff would recommend that City Council take a look at the zoning of the entire downtown area and amend it where appropriate.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...