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In 2008, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote about the controversy over a proposed high rise for downtown Evanston (Evanston’s “Tower” project: see sidebar).
“Evanston is half-suburb, half-city, and it is ground zero right now in the roiling debate over the extent to which America’s suburbs should invite that symbol of urban ambition and angst – the skyscraper – into their downtowns.” – Chicago Tribune March 20, 2008.
Two recent votes on proposed downtown Evanston high-rises have again raised questions about Evanston’s planning process and about what guidelines are in place to govern the process and avoid the appearance of arbitrariness.
By a 5-4 vote, City Council recently approved the 166-foot, 15-story Albion high-rise at 1450-1508 Sherman Ave. The City’s Plan Commission rejected the proposed 318-foot, 33-story Vermillion project for 601 Davis St., but it is scheduled to be presented to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee on Jan. 8. City Council has the ultimate vote on all development proposals.
While many residents have strong opinions about the merits of particular high-rise projects, far fewer may understand what the legally required process consists of, what standards are binding, and which ones are not.
Concerns about the increase in the number of high-rises in downtown have been raised in the past, as with the 2008 Tower project proposed for 708 Church St. This is why the 2006 Design Guidelines for Planned Development and the 2009 Downtown Plan were developed and adopted by the City Council. Neither was codified. Only the 1993 Zoning Code and its subsequent amendments are legally binding.
The Count So Far
Here are some of the major residential and office high-rise planned development projects in the planning stage for Downtown Evanston (see bar graph on next page):
- 1706-26 Sherman Ave., the Northlight Theatre Project: 37 stories, mixed use. No proposal submitted yet.
- 601 Davis St., Vermillion: 33 stories, mixed use (east of the Chase Bank drive-through.) To be presented to City Council in January.
- 1621 Chicago Ave., The Legacy: 25 stories, apartments or condominiums; north of The Merion. No proposal submitted yet.
- 1727 Oak Ave.: 17 stories, apartments for “active adults.” No proposal submitted yet.
- 1450 Sherman Ave., The Albion: 15 stories, mixed use. Approved by City Council.
- 1714-18 Chicago Ave., the Library parking lot: 11 stories, offices. No proposal submitted yet.
Each of these has been or will be reviewed as a “planned development.” The City of Evanston’s zoning ordinance defines planned developments as “a type of special use that is intended to encourage the efficient use of land and resources, to promote greater efficiency in public and utility services, and to encourage innovation in the planning and building of all types of development.”
Planned developments request “site development allowances” from the City. These allow the project to vary from what would be allowed by the Zoning Code (e.g., coverage of the lot, building height, parking requirements, number of dwelling units). In addition, each project must provide one or more “public benefits” to qualify for the development allowances.
“Public benefits,” as defined by the Zoning Code, are a “nonexclusive list of benefits which are intended to be derived from the approval of the particular planned development.” These can include a bike-sharing station, public art, affordable housing units beyond those required by the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, public plaza(s), above-grade parking wrapped by habitable floor areas, streetscape and alley improvements, façade improvements, landmarks preservation.
Since floor-to-floor height may vary from building to building, a more accurate measure of height is feet rather than number of floors. Source of chart data : Emporis, City of Evanston, and other information
The Review Process
Here is a simplified overview of the typical planned development review process. The Downtown District Planned Development Information Sheet is available at cityofevanston.org. City staff are consulted before an application is submitted. In addition, often a developer will try to get citizen input before the formal process begins, as recently happened with the Northlight project. Citizen input can be given from the “Design and Project Review” stage up to final City Council voting. (See sidebar on next page.)
Zoning Analysis: The proposed project must be analyzed by City staff as to compliance with the 1993 Zoning Code and its Amendments, and the project’s compliance with the 2009 Downtown Plan.
Design and Project Review Committee (DAPR): The project is then presented at a meeting of the DAPR Committee, which is composed of City staff from various departments. The applicant is informed of any staff concerns about appearance, provision of City services, need for public benefits, and relevant codes.
Next, the project is presented to the Evanston Plan Commission’s nine citizen members. The Plan Commission uses Special Use standards listed in the Zoning Code to evaluate each project. For the Plan Commission to recommend that the City Council grant a planned development, the members must find that the proposed planned development meets these standards:
1. It is in compliance with the site controls and standards for planned developments for the zoning district in which the property lies;
2. It is in compliance with the purposes and policies of the Comprehensive General Plan and the Zoning Ordinance;
3. It will not cause a negative cumulative effect in combination with existing special uses;
4. It will not interfere with or diminish the value of property in the neighborhood;
5. It will be adequately served by public facilities and services;
6. It will not cause undue traffic congestion;
7. It will preserve significant historical and architectural resources;
8. It will preserve significant natural and environmental resources; and
9. It will comply with all other applicable regulations.
The proposal then goes to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee. A vote of approval by a majority of that committee’s members sends the project to the City Council for “introduction.”
Finally, the City Council discusses the project and votes on whether or not to adopt an ordinance granting the planned development. Only a simple majority is required for approval if the site-development allowances do not exceed those established in the Zoning Code. If the allowances exceed what is permitted in the zoning code, then a two-thirds majority of the aldermen is required for approval of the ordinance.
The 2009 Downtown Evanston Plan
At each step of the planned development process, reference is made to Evanston’s 2009 Downtown Plan, or sometimes to previous versions (1989). Although the plan was adopted by the Council on Feb. 9, 2009, its guidelines were never codified into an ordinance, and it therefore has no legal teeth. There was considerable citizen involvement in the development of the plan.
The 2009 Downtown Plan states, “Residents of Evanston have repeatedly asked city officials for greater certainty in development rules and much more clarity regarding the city’s long-term development plans. This plan is a response to those concerns.”
The 2009 Downtown Plan broadly describes Downtown Core Districts, Transitional Districts, and Traditional Districts. These concepts are still looked to, because they are useful tools in evaluating buildings for scale, bulk, and overall fit into Downtown Evanston and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Many residents are wondering whether the 2009 Downtown Plan could be adapted to today’s economy and Evanston’s seeming desirability to developers and whether there could realistically be a moratorium on reviewing new projects until that plan is updated.
Some aldermen are starting to take these questions seriously. Two current City Council members – Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey and Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne – were on the Council in 2009 when the Downtown Plan was adopted. Newer aldermen are less familiar with the Plan, but a recent effort to revisit it and update it was met with little interest by most aldermen.
Several current aldermen have said that the economic downturn of 2008 rendered many of the assumptions of the plan, such as those validating the tower on the north end of the Fountain Square block, no longer relevant and/or desirable.
But without some version of the Downtown Plan, the process can appear subjective and susceptible to developers eager to fill vacant lots with high-rises.
Ald. Wynne stated at the Oct. 23 Planning and Development Committee meeting, “We need to send a clear message to the development community. … What do we value in Evanston? The wisdom of the downtown plan is unchanged. The current Council has to fight every single fight. … Citizens should not have to be their own zoning lawyers. Council has too many other things to work on. Most Council members are appalled by most of the tall building proposals.”
At that same meeting, Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson addressed the amount of Council time that is spent on developer proposals. “Sure, they come in with something more than where they will end up. … We have a very open and extensive process. … There have been lots of opportunities for people to get their voices heard. … We do not roll over for every developer that comes to town. … These things get tortured, tortured, tortured, tortured. We spend untold hours working on these…”
Johanna Leonard, Director of Community Development, also served on the 2009 Downtown Plan committee. She says developers do not always check with City staff early enough, and they do not often demonstrate they are listening. Ideally, staff can coach developers on what other developers have found helpful and on ways to upgrade neighboring areas. A priority for staff is to encourage compatible pedestrian spaces.
Ms. Leonard says she is unsure how much of a developer’s initial proposal they intend to end up with. The fluidity of the “public benefits” that developers can provide affects the final outcome. Ideally developers would bring realistic proposals, likely to be approved.
The City’s need for revenue hangs over this process. But the City has to absorb the costs of the impact on infrastructure and services of the construction phase and the final high rise. Ms. Leonard said that this trade-off is a difficult calculation.
Meanwhile downtown land costs are increasing and driving the size of project that developers consider financially attractive. The assumption is that these sites cannot be realistically developed without the planned development approach. It appears that aldermen, City staff, and residents will continue to be faced with this uncertain and often frustrating process for the near future.