At the request of Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle, City Council revisited its 2009 Downtown Plan advisory planning document at a special City Council meeting on Oct. 2. Years in the making, the plan, organized in large part around the proposed 38-story tower that was to be built at 708 Church St., found little support eight years later.
The plan passed in early 2009, but zoning changes contemplated by the plan were never adopted into law. Mayor Steve Hagerty asked why the plan was never codified.(that is, it did not become part of the City code.)
Discussion of the plan “started in 2006 and by the time it got adopted, reality had changed,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. The plan called for 200 units of new housing, primarily condominium new construction, and 35,000 square feet of new retail space. “The plan stopped reflecting the reality of we were looking at. And it wasn’t even a close call,” said Ald. Wilson. “I didn’t have any interest in codifying it.”
Ald. Wilson said the plan called for greater height and density on streets now lined with one- or two-story buildings such as Davis between Sherman and Oak. “I don’t have a strong inclination to tear down Davis Street and build 10- or 11-story buildings,” he said. Current proposed projects largely contemplate building on underused or empty lots, he said.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, agreed. “What’s happening right now doesn’t seem to reflect [the plan] well,” she said. “I couldn’t support the heights that were in the 2009 plan,” she said, mentioning in particular the 35-story Church Street project in the “central core” district. The Church Street Tower, a planned unit development that expired when Council declined to extend the Ordinance permitting it in 2013, served as the virtual centerpiece of the Downtown Plan.
Others were a bit more circumspect. “The world turned upside down with the great recession,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. “Aspects of [the downtown plan] we would all share a view of,” she added, saying piecemeal development “is terrible. It’s really terrible.” The point of the plan was to give both the community and developers some certainty. “You hear this all the time – developers want certainty,” she said.
Referencing the four large projects in the pipeline (library lot, Chicago/Davis, the two on Sherman Avenue) as well as the recently approved Emerson project, she said “developments are stacked up like planes coming into O’Hare.” Because no plan was ever codified, Council deals with each project individually – piecemeal. “I’m not happy about that,” said Ald. Wynne.
“I’m not sure where we are” with the downtown plan, concluded Ald. Wynne.
Ald. Revelle said “I don’t think any of us are happy with the zones in the downtown plan. … The world has changed” since the plan was considered and passed. But the central concepts in the plan remain. First, density in the downtown core is good, but height bonuses should come in exchange for real public benefits. Second, local flavor and “character” (Ald. Wynne called it “charm” but settled on character in her comments) in traditional shopping zones should be preserved and “we should work hard to keep these.” Then a series of transitional zones where building height tapers off to meet the largely residential areas surrounding downtown, preventing looming buildings engulfing single family homes in shadows and wind tunnels. “Those ideas struck me,” she said.
Council took no action on the approved but not codified downtown plan, but thanked staff for dusting it off for their review.