A proposal to amend the City’s zoning ordinance to allow more office buildings in residential areas bracketing downtown failed to get out of the Planning and Development Committee at its July 22 meeting.

Aldermen on the committee voted 4-2 against advancing the change to the full City Council. The City’s Plan Commission had previously recommended against the proposal.

Alderman Judy Fiske, whose First Ward includes a portion of the downtown area, had proposed the change in May after the City Council rejected a developer’s proposal to build an 11-story office building on what is now  a surface parking lot adjacent to the Evanston Public Library.

Ald. Fiske’s proposal called for a text amendment to the present zoning ordinance to permit office spaces without ground floor commercial space in high-density residential-zoned districts adjacent to the downtown core.

“We have probably four or five, possibly six, developers who are interested in bringing office uses into the downtown and we have no place to put them,” Ald. Fiske argued at the July 22 meeting.

The areas that would have been affected by the text amendment “are right next to downtown,”she argued. “They’re within a matter of feet of our core downtown. This is an opportunity to have lower- scale office development that benefits the downtown.”

But other aldermen at the meeting spoke of the residential areas that would be affected by the change.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said, “Having looked at the map where the affected areas [are], it seems to me that most of them are what I would describe on the periphery of downtown, and basically most of them have really solid, well-established residential structures already in place. So it’s not clear to me that those are really desirable locations for a new office building. Frankly, I think our office development is really more appropriate in the core downtown area where the tenants can more readily make use of our public transportation and contribute more directly to the increased vitality of the downtown.”

Ald. Revelle said she agreed with Ald. Fiske that officials are looking to increase the vitality of downtown and have more people shopping and going to the  restaurants in that area.

“But the better place for this office density is in the downtown, as opposed to on the periphery,” Ald. Revelle said.

Ald. Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, pointed to a “very thorough” discussion at the Plan Commission before its members voted down the issue 7-1. 

“They raised a number of issues that Ald. Revelle just touched on, in terms of not changing the zoning pattern in a piecemeal way, and if we do need to do analysis of potential office uses, it should be done in a more comprehensive way. I very much agree with that.

“You know zoning is really like a jigsaw puzzle,” Ald. Wynne continued. “If you move or change the size of one piece, you literally disrupt the whole jigsaw puzzle. So if you’re going to do that, then you should look at every piece.”

Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, noted that near the Library parking lot development, 70% of that block is tax-exempt.

“When you look at that square block and the square block across the street, to the alley, it is the most perfect lot in the downtown area at this time, really, for an office building,” she said.

“It works perfectly. It’s across the street from the Church Street garage. The parcels are crying out for taxable property – an office building taxable property. So why we continue having this discussion about not putting an office building there is just so illogical,” Ald. Rainey said. “I just can’t believe we keep beating this dead horse. We should bring it back to life, give it a transplant.”

Ald. Fiske maintained that the areas to which she was referring really fall in the downtown core. “So the question is, ‘How does the downtown core work for us, what are we trying to protect, where do want to develop?’”

During citizen comment prior to the Committee’s vote, several speakers urged aldermen to reject the change.

Joan Safford, one of the speakers, noted the proposal would amend the zoning ordinance to permit new office buildings to be built as special uses in the residential districts adjacent to the downtown districts.

In those areas, office buildings could be built to 85 feet – 97feet if a planned development, Ms. Safford said.

She maintained that the text amendment “is equivalent to spot zoning. The clear purpose, as recognized by the Plan Commission, is to apply it to the Library parking lot,” she said. Other lots are occupied by structures well established in their neighborhoods, or have plans already in  place such  as the Sojourner (Covenant) Church (1101 Church St.) or more suited to residential development, such as the King Home (1555 Oak Av.)

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.