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Central Street where it crosses Crawford Avenue – and, almost immediately, Gross Point Road – at the far northwest end of Evanston poses plenty of traffic issues on its own – and is not in need of any additional ones.

“Central, Gross Point Road; Central at Crawford; and Gross Point Road and Crawford have been really tricky at times,” said Lara Biggs, the city’s Capital Planning Bureau Chief for Public Works, speaking at the April 12 Design and Project Review Committee (DAPR) meeting, “and we’ve had some issues, particularly when people go eastbound on Central Street to get through those intersections.”

“To make it more interesting,” she said, “those [traffic signals] are controlled by the Illinois Department of Transportation. We have limited ability to make modifications.”

Those concerns became particularly relevant at the DAPR meeting, where Kensington School’s plan to operate a day care center at 3434 Central St. was on the agenda. In its application for zoning relief, Kensington has proposed that school traffic will exit onto Central Street.

Kensington School, a private nursery, preschool and kindergarten operator based in Burr Ridge, Ill., is requesting special use zoning for a new 24,916-square-foot facility at the present site of Unity Church on the North Shore.

Kensington purchased the property from Unity for $1.9 million last August, according to one of the documents filed as part of the school’s application. Kensington’s plan calls for demolishing the existing building, constructing the two-story day care center and installing off-street parking and playgrounds.

The school operator had earlier wished to purchase the long-vacant Second Church of Christ, Scientist building at 2715 Hurd Ave., near Willard School. The neighbors there objected to the school, raising concerns about proposed traffic plans and possible congestion and eventually planning to seek landmark status for the structure, designed by Perkins and Will.

At the Unity Church site, to accommodate drop-offs and pickups the school is proposing a full-access drive from Gross Point Road that would serve the school and an adjacent residential cooperative.

An additional right turn-only on the Central Street side of the site will “further alleviate those that wish to utilize the nearby signaled intersection for access,” the school said in its application.

A revised site plan for Kensington School at the Unity Church on the North Shore site. (Rendering from DAPR Committee packet)

Speaking at the meeting, Charles Marlas, Kensington School’s owner and CEO, told the committee that the school previously had a site plan that adhered to the zoning for the residential district.

He said a new plan, drawn up after a meeting with neighbors, would allow for full access in and out off Gross Point Road. He said the right-turn-only on Central Street, which is on the north side of the property, is designed to alleviate the access to and from Gross Point Road.

“We do meet parking requirements,” he said. “And from an operational perspective, we believe this is a really good plan.”

City staff as well as several neighbors at the meeting appeared to acknowledge the plan was an improvement from what they had previously seen, but they suggested some changes nonetheless.

Speaking for staff, Biggs said, “We would like it considered that, if there are significant issues that develop as a result of this [the plan], that we would restrict the [school’s proposed] use of the right turn-out during peak traffic hour. And if that does not alleviate the issues, that we would want you to engage IDOT-certified consultants in the signal-timing process.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with the right-out on Central,” Biggs told the Kensington team, “but because those three intersections can be so tricky, it’s hard to know exactly how it will play out.”

Marlas noted that Kensington’s drop-off differs from the set schedule that day care centers traditionally use, spreading out the start times and lessening the impact.

‘A horrible intersection’: Neighbor

Speaking at the meeting, Larry Raffel, a resident who lives close to the site, told DAPR members that neighbors would prefer not to have the right-turn-only onto Central Street that Kensington is proposing.

He said he could understand how the city might maintain it as an option but suggested, “If you could close it off, if the need arises, that would be the next preferable thing to do.”

“My fear in general is that the intersection of Crawford, Gross Point and Central is horrible,” Raffel said. “It’s horrible regardless of what’s on this site. And my sense is that people coming to bring their children here, and staff, are going to come on Central Street, park on Central Street, bring their kids into school, and then get back in their cars onto Central Street, because it’s just easier to navigate than come off of Gross Point Road, drive through the parking lot, find a place to park and bring the kids in. And if the parking lot is crowded, with parents and others waiting for somebody to move. … I think people are just going to park on Central Street.”

He suggested to DAPR members that there be no parking allowed on Central Street at that location once the daycare center is in operation. He also noted that the site has a three-foot wide carriage walk, not a standard-sized sidewalk, on the north side of Central Street.

People with dogs, for instance, walk in the street, because that is the easiest thing to do, Raffel said. “So the more cars that come down there, it just makes it really dangerous,” he added.

Lack of sidewalks

Marlas responded to Raffel that the school’s original plan was to have full access on Central, “and that, as you know, was a real problem for yourself and the neighbors in the whole residential community on Central all the way to the west. This is the alternative.”

Another resident, who also lives across from the site, told DAPR members she was concerned about left-hand turns off the exit drive onto Central Street. She asked if some kind of curb extension could be added, preventing those turns from occurring.

“We have a lot of people who are walking on the streets,” she said. “We don’t have sidewalks, so we have to be really concerned about that. We’re really concerned, as a neighborhood, with that traffic.”

Biggs said officials plan to build their recommendations into the school’s special-use request to address the neighbors’ concerns.

She said she agreed with neighbors about lack of sidewalks in some places and noted the recent passage of an ordinance requiring that developers to build sidewalks when they rehab properties.

Also, she said, “we have passed the new sidewalk-improvement program that dramatically increased funding. We’re starting to fill sidewalk gaps.”

Chairing the meeting, Johanna Nyden, the city’s Community Development Director, reinforced Biggs’s viewpoint.

“I don’t think you’re going to meet anybody in this room that doesn’t feel separating people and cars [through] sidewalks isn’t a good idea,” she told residents.

In an 11-0 vote, the staff committee recommended in favor of the special use, subject to conditions. These included:

  • “After operations begin, if traffic added by school use becomes an issue on Central Street, the right-turn-only onto Central will be restricted to outside peak traffic hours. If this is unsuccessful in resolving traffic issues, the Owner will be required to engage an IDOT-prequalified consultant to complete the analysis to retime the traffic signals. No staff will be allowed to park in the neighborhood.
  • “Kensington will provide access for maintenance of trees and plantings along the west property line.
  • “Kensington will provide drawing indicating in/out access for emergency vehicles.”

The committee’s recommendation is advisory. The issue will eventually have to go to the full City Council, which has final authority on such matters.

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.

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