Evanston officials are proposing a change in the way the City handles requests from businesses applying to fill spaces in Evanston’s business districts, looking to speed up the process in the recovery from COVID-19.

The change would give staff the power to approve applications from businesses without going through a special use process that can involve more cost and time.
Some residents, though, have raised concerns about the change and the removal of citizens’ voices from the process.

At the April 26 City Council meeting, officials proposed that the City’s Special Use process – used to weigh requests – be eliminated from the Zoning Ordinance, and a new system be used with City administrators having the authority on the requests.

Council members are expected to discuss and take final action on the issue at their May 19 meeting.

Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Coordinator, briefed members of the City’s Plan Commission about the change at their April 14 meeting.

Under the existing Special Use Process, applicants for new businesses go through a 90-to-120 day process that involves the filing of documents and hearings before the City’s Design & Project Committee to obtain a staff recommendation as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals before landing at the Council.

The system, as it now works, “really slows down the process,” Mr. Zalmezak told Commission members.

The time lag is particularly important as the City is looking to recover from the pandemic, said Mr. Zalmezak as well as Melissa Klotz, the City’s Zoning Administrator.

Speaking at the Plan Commission meeting, Mr. Zalmezak noted “if 20% of downtown Evanston storefronts are vacant,” staff’s current estimate, “that’s about 45 storefronts. When they start to fill back up that’s a bottleneck of special uses 90 days each, and all the staff time to do that – it’s just overwhelming to think about it.”

Ms. Klotz expanded on that point in a memo on the proposal to aldermen.

“There is significant interest in many vacant commercial spaces throughout the City,” she wrote. ”Most incoming interested businesses are restaurants, fitness, office, and financial uses, all of which require Special Use approval in nearly every commercial/business/downtown zoning district and overlay district. Given the current number of vacancies and anticipated incoming businesses, staff estimates 40-60 Special Uses would need to be processed in 2021,” she wrote.

“Instead, many of these businesses are questioning their decision to locate in Evanston,” she maintained, “and consider or actually choose neighboring communities that do not have $1,000-$2,000 in application and mailing fees and a 90-120 day zoning process.”

Officials are proposing a three-pronged approach instead, she said. Their suggestions include the elimination of businesses in certain categories from going through the Special Use process that can be “legally unnecessary and generates confusion,” Ms. Klotz said in her memo.

Type 2 businesses that fall into those categories are fast food restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, indoor recreation businesses, ground-floor office spaces, and financial institutions.

The City’s Plan Commission, an appointed group of residents, recommended in favor of the proposal at their April 14 meeting, though some members as well as residents at the virtual meeting raised concerns.

George Halik, a member of the Plan Commission, observed, “It seems like we’re taking the adjacent community out of the process … and we’re leaving it up to staff. How does the community get input on whether this is a good use, or a bad use in those borderline areas?”

Under the current system, residents have several opportunities to speak out against a proposed use, including at Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), Council Committee meetings, and at the Council meeting itself. Under the change, staff could recommend a request go to ZBA if they felt it did not meet standards.

Cecile McHugh, one of the residents who spoke, told Commissioners that “streamlining the processes is fine, but not without eliminating public input or awareness of what’s happening.”

She asked whether provisions would be made to publicize opportunities for citizens to speak on use proposals.

Laurie McFarland, another resident, noted that the new proposal “is phrased fairly broadly and it is a shift in the power and the amount of input that the public will have.”
Ms. McFarland related in her own case, “I live in a neighborhood that’s heavily impacted by Northwestern.

“I love them in so many ways,” she said, “but some of the things that they’d like to do with land use make everybody nervous, and there would be a huge outcry if people thought that this affected anything in U [the University] District.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.