Evanston’s City Council Monday imposed a six-month moratorium on approval of new construction projects downtown.

But the council, with Aldermen Wynne and Moran absent, rejected on a 4-3 vote amendments that would have applied the moratorium to projects that have already started the development review process.

Two tower projects recently announced for the Fountain Square block and a new proposal for 1515 Chicago Ave. that reportedly involves a 12-story mixed-use building would be covered by the exemption.

The vote came after city attorney Herb Hill surprised the aldermen with a legal opinion that developers who have begun the review process do not have a legally enforceable right to escape a moratorium.

Despite that, a majority of the aldermen voted to stick with the exemption practice they’ve followed when imposing other recent moratoriums.

The moratorium is designed to give consultants hired by the city time to prepare a new master plan for downtown.

Aldermen who voted for the exemptions argued that — given the slow pace of the review process — the new plan is likely to be completed before the council takes a final vote on the projects.

Mr. Hill said that a moratorium, to be valid, has to be of a “definite, limited, short duration — a temporary review pending analysis.”

He said the six-month proposed moratorium would meet that test.

The council has a history of extending the length of building moratoriums. A moratorium on the west side, originally scheduled to last four months, only recently was allowed to expire 13 months after it was first approved.

And at Monday’s meeting the council approved a second extension of a moratorium along Central Street. With the latest extension the Central Street moratorium, originally scheduled to last six months, will end up running a minimum of 13 months.

Mr. Hill said moratoriums do need to be as brief as possible and have defined goals and benchmarks. “If they’re going to be temporary, they can’t be for two years,” he said.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said that after advising developers that they’re exempt if they’re “in the pipeline” it would be “bait and switch” to include them at this point.

The city lost a court case challenging its decision to downzone property on the southeast corner of Main Street and Chicago Avenue after a developer had spent substantial sums developing plans for a project that would have met existing zoning standards.

But Mr. Hill said both projects proposed for Fountain Square are asking “for way beyond what’s allowed as of right” under the zoning code and so they have no vested right to be allowed to build what they’ve proposed.

Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said, “You’re telling us we have discretion that we never knew we had. I think some of our past decisions would have been different if we didn’t have to abide by ‘the pipeline.’”

Ald. Rainey said, “When the moratorium is over, all we will have is a plan. We won’t have new rules or regulations. It took us two to three years to pass the last zoning ordinance.” She suggested it would be unfair to make developers wait that long.

Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, was the only council member who voted against imposing a moratorium at all.

He said downtown development “has been funding everything we’ve been doing in this city for the last nine years. It’s the only thing standing between us and poverty or a serious increase in real estate taxes. I don’t want to tell anybody that we’re precluding construction.”

“If we had a history of passing everything, I’d say put a moratorium on,” Ald. Bernstein added. “But every project is subject to incredible, unbelievable scrutiny,” and he noted that just last year the council rejected an 18-story building proposed for the 1515 Chicago Ave. site.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, urged his colleagues to support a moratorium with the exemption for pending projects. “Suppose we have no moratorium and three or four other projects get into the pipeline. We’ve invested in the consultants and we’ve maintained the past practice of exempting what’s in the pipeline. But we need to support the moratorium so that our constituents are clear that we are moving together on planning.”

The aldermen Monday also voted to postpone until their next meeting a final decision on the proposed 14-story retail and rental apartment development proposed for 1890 Maple Ave.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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