The City’s Plan Commission voted 4-1 on Jan. 9 to recommend that City Council reject a long-gestating project proposed for 1714-1720 Chicago Ave. that would allow a 13-story office building to be erected near the Evanston Public Library.
The project, if approved, would be flanked on either side by historic buildings, the Woman’s Club of Evanston and the Frances Willard House. But the project had similarly been rejected 9-0 by the Design and Project Review Committee in November. Numerous residents speaking at the Jan. 9 meeting objected both to the potential for the project’s construction to damage existing structures as well as its historical and aesthetic inconsistency with its neighbors.
The proposal, submitted by architect Paul Janicki last June, called for rezoning the parcel from R6, General Residential, to D3, making it part of the Downtown Core Development District, a move that some residents called blatant “spot zoning” – a rezoning designation at odds with a parcel’s established use.
Resident Virginia Beatty said she was concerned about the size and bulk of the project, noting that it is about four times higher than nearby buildings, adding, “This tall building has a national historic monument on either side of it … These buildings are quite fragile.”
Ms. Beatty then echoed recent calls for the City to better exploit its part in women’s history: “I’d like to suggest that we put Evanston’s women on the world map. … Let’s invite people to stop by and enjoy Evanston’s history and hospitality.”
Melanie Cody of Woman’s Club of Evanston said that she was concerned about the impact construction could have on her organization’s event business: “We really do not want to be harmed financially and structurally.”
Commissioners were largely critical of the project specifics, and they also noted a conundrum: The project essentially ticked several boxes that City officials had said they wanted on the parcel in the past.
“This is something the City wants and said is required,” noted Mr. Janicki in comments.
But commissioners said they had to vote in reflection of the project before them, not in deference to past comments from City officials. Commission Chair Colby Lewis said, “We’re not to consider what City Council asked for, and as a recommending body, I’d like to feel I’m not kowtowing to what City Council is asking for.”
Commissioner Andrew Pigozzi commented on what he saw as a lack of coherence in the details of the proposal. “I’ve studied this since we first saw it,” he said. “… I’m not convinced that this building has any precedent. I don’t understand it and why it looks the way it does. … When you get a package, you shouldn’t have to ask a clarifying question on basic information.”
Commissioner Peter Isaac said he was concerned about the loss of an open-air lot, and the effect on library and surrounding businesses, adding that “This is a pretty tough case. There are pros and cons on either side … I’m conflicted on it.”
In the end, Chairman Lewis was the sole vote in favor of recommending the proposal to City Council, even though he also expressed his misgivings. Admitting that the request did feel like spot-zoning, he added, “I just don’t think that offices on this site are compatible with an area that’s residential and contains this row of historic buildings.”