Evanston’s Plan Commission will soon consider a planned development proposed for the City owned Library parking lot. The Commission’s decision and what they must consider to reach it are worth public scrutiny, especially because the project involves the sale of public land.
In July, the project went before the City’s Design Architecture Plan Review (DAPR) committee which had detailed its concerns about the project’s design. At a second meeting in November, developers held to earlier responses with respect to their requested seven zoning variances and the public benefits proposed in consideration for these allowances.
Speaking for the developers, Greg Stec declared the project “untenable” if the City insists on code-required 15-foot setbacks from the north and side property lines rather than the five feet the developers propose. Their proposed design also relies on building out into the public alley on land the City would have to vacate and on making the structure 50% higher than allowed by code. The proposed 167-foot tower covering nearly the entire 27,000 square foot lot in a residential neighborhood emphasizes that these would be extraordinary concessions – and these are just three of the seven requested. The developers are presenting a bigger building than allowed; if denied the variances, the project isn’t worth doing.
This project is just too big for the site, and we agree that it is untenable.
The proposal presented raises important questions for community members. We see these five:
• Does the proposed development meet terms of the September 2017 sales contract and the basic requirements of the City’s 2016 RFP?
• Are claims made in the Planned Development Application internally consistent? Do the project’s touted economic benefits have a sound basis?
• Do the developers’ claims of engagement with neighboring property owners and descriptions of the building’s impact on them hold up to close examination?
• What impact would squeezing such a large building into this site have on public safety in the adjacent alley? This alley is busy with foot traffic and with trucks providing commercial services to the Library, the seven-story 208-unit McManus Center for graduate student housing, the landmark properties of the Evanston Woman’s Club and Frances Willard campus, plus the nine-story Lakeview Terrace condominiums and several three-story residential buildings along Clark Street. Can the alley sustain the added impact of 544 employees coming daily to the building, primarily through the alley, on foot, by bicycle, and by car? Would this development impose permanent harm to neighboring property owners?
• Are proposed public benefits fully commensurate with the requests for seven major variances, rezoning from R6 to D3, and for asking the City to vacate land in the alley? Would these benefits serve the entire community as the current Library parking lot does?
Despite the statement from City staff that their questions had not been satisfactorily addressed, the developers asked for a vote, and DAPR voted unanimously to withhold a positive recommendation to the Plan Commission and City Council.
We agree with DAPR. A selective presentation of renderings obscures the building’s full impact on the neighborhood. The building itself far exceeds R6 zoning standards and would cause significant and permanent harm to neighbors while failing to meet a key requirement – the full replacement of the 74 public parking places. An overall lack of clarity and consistency within the developers’ written submissions raises additional questions. The confused list purporting to identify public benefits cannot obscure the fact that Evanston would not gain back what it would sacrifice.
Rather than write off the 24 months as time mis-spent on this proposed development, we suggest that the Council act now to update, approve and provide key provisions of its 2009 downtown plan to would-be developers. Clarity and commitment to development requirements the Council will stand behind should bring the City more suitable proposals, and a good deal of community bandwidth could be spared.
Ms. Schastok is former president and CEO of Evanston Community Foundation and Ms. Steidl volunteers with the Frances Willard Historic Association.