One question we frequently hear at public meetings is, “Why is this the first we’re hearing about this?”
There’s good reason for people to ask that question, especially when it comes to the emotionally-fraught world of Evanston’s planning and development.
The City has several times carried out misguided efforts in the service of its development, and Evanstonians, as partners in a participatory government, must be vigilant about making sure that the business of development is carried out in a responsible, sustainable and transparent manner.
But for several years we have had concerns about the manner in which some of our residents have questioned that transparency, especially noting a lack of decorum and civility that has marked some public meetings.
An Evanston Design and Project Review (DAPR) committee meeting on March 20 was adjourned 10 minutes early after an audience member delivered a provocative statement – one that in most other places would constitute a threat – that she would like to “go up on [their] roof and watch you all blow up.”
DAPR officials and audience members considered the source – the speaker was a regular participant in public meetings – and the only damage done was the early adjournment. But that remark was only useful in shutting down an important conversation early.
We want to be clear – the City’s development approval apparatus needs no free passes from its citizens. City officials have on numerous occasions been overzealous in courting developers without considering the long-term implications of their projects. They have sometimes acted as if the Master Plan is irrelevant and out of date while making little effort to update it. New projects are seemingly considered on a case by case basis, with little thought towards the vision residents have for their City.
Developers, for their parts, often seem more concerned with cashing in by courting abstract demographics – “empty-nesters” and supposedly free-spending millennials, usually – with less than thorough consideration of impact on the community.
On March 20, DAPR officials, developers and Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons repeatedly stated that the meeting was a preliminary attempt to hear public concerns about a 5th Ward proposal, one for which no formal application had even been made to the City. The audience was filled to capacity, and most in attendance were concerned about the character and scope of the project. Ald. Simmons also noted that she found the project “less exciting” once she learned that the development in question would be a rental-apartment complex.
After much discussion and many questions, a different audience member questioned the integrity and transparency of the proceedings, accusing Ald. Simmons of secrecy over the matter and conspiring with developers. That audience member said that ample notice had not been given for the meeting – it was published in Ald. Rue Simmons’ newsletter the week before – and demanded to continue speaking when committee members tried to answer her remarks.
While the majority of Evanstonians taking part in public forums are respectful and informative, there are some who show up to talk, but not listen.
Much time in the March 20 meeting was spent trying to answer concerns that had already been addressed and listening to Ald. Simmons be castigated for supporting a project for which she had expressed no enthusiasm. There were numerous Fifth Ward residents who showed up to that meeting to have their voices heard; that discussion came to a screeching halt when personal attacks and conspiracy theories began.
The everyday business of running the City is not easy, as both officials and residents know all too well. Staff and elected officials usually do make considerable efforts to be transparent.
The City has an online clearinghouse of development information, publishes development materials in tandem with meetings, and holds preliminary sessions like the March 20 meeting to get ahead of public concerns.
We hope that residents will avail themselves of these resources and reach out to their officials with their concerns and take part in the process. But we further hope that our public forums can be largely free of ad hominem attacks and be marked by respect, civility and vigorous discourse instead.