Evanston news delivered free to your inbox!
The Design and Project Review committee, more commonly referred to by its acronym, DAPR, stands unique among city committees.
It’s comprised of staff members from a wide range of city departments – building, parking, fire, engineering and preservation among others. All these various department staffers weigh in on how developers’ proposals meet city standards, right down to the curb cuts and fire exits.
Yet, unlike other areas that exclusively involve staff, members of the public can sit in on the discussions and add their own views on projects at one of the earliest points of the development process.
That arrangement may end soon, however.
Members of the Council’s Planning & Development Committee, acting on a referral from Sixth Ward Council Member Thomas Suffredin, have recommended the group be dissolved from formal committee status.
The Council will be taking this up again and possibly take a vote at its next meeting Monday, June 27.
Should the change be approved, city staff would likely continue to hold and attend meetings, review projects and prepare comment-sheets on a project, but on a case-by-case basis, said Johanna Nyden, the city’s Community Development Director, in a memo.
Yet, there would be no formal structure as there is now, which means the city wouldn’t post agendas or send notices.
Instead, there would be more casual meetings with staff as per the issues pertinent to their particular department. But no live public forum, where citizens could weigh in.
Summary findings from the staff’s review of projects could be posted on the city’s website or accompany staff’s recommendations to the Land Use Commission or Planning & Development Committee, Nyden suggested in her memo.
Officials would make information from the reviews available on the city website, where a page on projects under review already exists, she said, providing a place for comments or feedback.
Nyden said in her memo that city staff support the change. “Operationally, staff believes that this will introduce greater efficiencies to the development review process,” she wrote.
Concerns about loss of transparency
But some Council members, even those who supported moving the proposal forward, raised concerns about the loss of public participation – including Suffredin, whose referral set in motion the review and the movement to dissolve the committee.
Suffredin said when asked June 16 why he promoted dissolving the committee, “I have no interest in removing the citizens from this.” He said his proposal sought “to make sure that staff stays in their lanes and analyze these projects as it relates to their areas only.”
At DAPR hearings, staff members draw on their expertise in the field and discuss various aspects of developers’ proposals – often candidly discussing where some projects are lacking and suggesting improvements. Committee members, by voice vote, then send their recommendations to the city’s Land Use Commission, identifying issues that need to be addressed.
In discussion at the council meeting on June 13 , Second Ward Council member Peter Braithwaite, who has served on the council since 2011, spoke about DAPR’s importance, saying, “If you’re doing a large development in your ward, DAPR is that opportunity for community engagement outside of your ward meeting. It’s always understood that you’re going to invite a developer to your ward meeting. But DAPR is like the technical space where citizens have the ability to engage.”
As an example, he pointed to the debate in 2017 around the 16-story, 287-unit Albion high rise project in his ward. Yet, Nyden maintained that the Albion also pointed to the problem with DAPR, telling council members it “was probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences for staff.”
Nyden told council members that people can become “very upset at us as staff. Several members of the [DAPR] committee also reiterate that people think that [staff members] have some power at the design and project review process to stop the project, and it is frankly upsetting to me as a city planner, as a local government professional, when people are so disheartened with the process.”
What replaces DAPR?
At the meeting, Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said he was exploring with staff a way to record meetings under the new format.
Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, also supported some kind of video recordings of “what appears to no longer be a meeting but a process.”
Nyden said her understanding was that council members were seeking “some administrated process by which we’re still engaging in transparency. My thought is we’ll probably have to get to that point and whether it’s recording some things, the idea of [holding] an open house for bigger for bigger developments. Going to the trouble to record a discussion about a sidewalk cafe may be excessive,” she said.
Burns said he would support the issue moving forward but said he would be “a 100% no vote” if discussions about large developments are not recorded.
“To go from meetings that you can attend in person to text,” Burns said. “I don’t think people understand how exhausting it is when you try to manage day-to-day life. It’s much easier for me, as an elected official, but also [for] community members to just watch something as it’s unfolding.”
Interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski, though, said “if this is going to be an internal process,” there’s no way to record that.
“Either we do it or we don’t do it,” she said. “ And that’s why I think staff has been a bit confused and frustrated with this – because it’s either get rid of the process altogether and people can take their chances with the Land Use Commission or we do the process but we can’t do the process in the way we’re describing for each individual project and record everything. That’s just not going to work.”
Mayor Daniel Biss reminded council members they were not taking a final action at the meeting, just introducing the proposal.
If the motion passed, he said, then it will be back to the council for final action June 27 “with clearly some further input from staff.”
Council members then voted 5-2 to move forward on the issue.
Voting in favor were Nieuwsma, Burns, Suffredin, Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle and Ninth Ward Council Member Juan Geracaris.
Voting no were Council Members Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Devon Reid, 8th Ward.
Braithwaite voiced his ‘no’ as an “absolutely no,” emphasizing his strong opposition to the change.