Shakespeare said brevity is the soul of wit. If so, by Evanston standards, Monday’s debate on the planned Fountain Square tower was witty indeed.


Some tower opponents await their minute at the mike.

Evanston aldermen, operating under a new set of rules designed speed the decision-making process on planned developments, managed to get through public comment on the 49-story tower project by giving most speakers just one minute to make their points.

But those were Evanston minutes, so it took a bit over two hours for the Planning and Development Committee to hear from a total of about 40 speakers.

The aldermen adopted the new rules over a year ago, but this was the first time they were applied to a highly-controversial project.

Public testimony on several projects in recent years had dragged on for months while the council operated under a since-overturned court ruling that turned the public hearings into quasi-judicial proceedings with a lengthy process of cross-examining witnesses.

The new rules actually call for limiting the discussion to a total of 30 minutes — 15 minutes for the applicant and its supporters and 15 minutes for opponents.

Some speakers seemed startled by the new time limits, but others came prepared with longer written statements to distribute to the aldermen and just a brief summary to read to the crowd.

And not everybody was limited to a minute Monday. The committee chair, Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, gave John Kennedy, representing the Evanston Coalition for Responsible Development, 20 minutes to deliver an extended PowerPoint presentation objecting to the tower.

That roughly matched the time given the project developers at last week’s meeting to make their PowerPoint presentation supporting the project.

The aldermen spent another hour Monday asking questions about the project and then adjourned, with plans to continue the tower debate at their next meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 24.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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18 Comments

  1. “The Whole Truth” in 60 sec.
    Setting aside for the moment the obvious problem that limiting comments to a minute reduces “discussion” to little more than sound bites, eliminating most nuance or complexity, there is both legal and logical absurdity in making speakers swear to tell “the whole truth” but then limiting comments to one minute. If what the Committee is taking is testimony, it ought to be complete rather than truncated with a cleaver. If what the Committee is hearing is supposed be only editorial snippets, then no one ought to be sworn in.

    There is also illogic in a principle of “the more controversial a project, the less time anyone should have to comment on it.”

    Project proponents claim this building would reshape Evanston’s downtown. Opponents agree. So it’s one of the biggest decisions this City could make. Since there are already procedural clouds looming over the project, all the pros and cons ought to be considered, in an atmosphere of thoughtfulness that respects people’s intelligence, rather than whipping speakers through a breakneck parade that resembles a “cattle call” musical audition, or the disclaimers at the end of an auto lease ad, more than a real hearing.

    The Council, by constituting itself as a committee of the whole for P&D purposes, reduced both Council action on P&D recommendations, and thus citizen comment at Council itself, to mere formality. Subsequently adopting rules intended to reduce public input at P&D is a misstep that has contributed to the sense, among many Evanstonians, of a government in which citizens are no longer the principal constituency to be served.

    “Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government.”

    1. Yankee town meeting
      “. So it’s one of the biggest decisions this City could make. Since there are already procedural clouds looming over the project, all the pros and cons ought to be considered, in an atmosphere of thoughtfulness that respects people’s intelligence, rather than whipping speakers through a breakneck parade that resembles a “cattle call” musical audition, or the disclaimers at the end of an auto lease ad, more than a real hearing.”

      Oh come on, Peter – there have been plenty of opportunities for both sides to air their views. What would be the point of letting every resident of Evanston have 30 minutes to speak, with members of both sides just repeating the same arguments?

      It would make much more sense for the council to permit at least two groups, with different opinions, prepare medium length presentations to support their views. So instead of 100 NIMBYs each ranting for 10 minutes, you guys could just appoint a Supreme NIMBY to present your case for 30 minutes. Instead of 25 pro-development people each giving reasonable and logical arguments for 10 minutes, again just have one guy present the case for development in a 30 minute talk.

      This is how any responsible government works…when the US Congress or a commitee of it conducts a debate or inquiry, they don’t let everyone in the country come to Washington to spout out arguments. They have each side choose a small number of people to present their information.

      I understand that you are a lawyer…do you really think that a judge would allow a parade of 500 expert witnesses, all saying pretty much the same thing, to testify in a civil suit, or any case? Today the Supreme Court heard a case about gun control laws in DC…they did not permit everyone in the country, or even everyone in DC, to testify pro or con, did they?

      This isn’t some little village in New Hampshire that has those quaint town meetings…don’t you guys realize that?

      1. Fact-checking
        Peter is not a lawyer. He is a respected political scientist (his book was recently named by CHOICE as a “top academic book of 2007”). Moreover, he did not author the blog you are attributing to him. Also, the author of the blog to which you are referring never made any claims about Evanston being akin to a New Hampshire village. Please get your facts straight.

        Claims have been made by the developers that those turning out for earlier meetings are just a “vocal minority”–that is why it is essential for as many people to testify as possible, and not to reduce the meeting to “two sides making presentations,” as you suggest should happen. Remember, the developers have had the ears of city officials for much more time (often behind closed doors in illegal meetings): is this fair or balanced? NO. Hence the need for as much citizen input. I had hoped that this could get resolved without a call for a referendum on the issue. But now I think that is the only way the true sentiments of Evanston residents will triumph over what developers are trying to push on us.

        1. The only fact I got wrong
          The only fact I got wrong was referring to Jeff as Peter. Really, it gets hard to tell them apart . You could clearly see that I was responding to Jeff’s post – so harping over an incorrect name is silly.
          I also think that the harping over the ‘closed door meeting’ is silly too. Yes, the AG determine that it violated an open meetings rule. But was this part of a conspiracy to secretly build a 49-story tower here? No, no, no. The aldermen believed that they were permitted to discuss this in a closed session. The records of the meeting show NO secret dealmaking, just an attempt by the aldermen to get information without noisy NIMBY’s obstructing things.

          Hold a referendum. Maybe the anti-tower NIMBY’s would win. We should also hold referenda on whether to lower taxes ( a sure winner), maintain 3 libraries (probably another winner), have better snowplowing (winner), save the elm trees (another winner), turn the former Kendall lot into a park ( winner), and hire more police and firemen (again, a winner).

          This goes back to what I said before about the Plan Commission : no tax authority, no responsibility, no accountability. If you guys want to stifle development to keep your low rise Class B Evanston, you should pay the taxes. There should be a special NIMBY tax.

  2. Thre REAL story about last night’s skyscrcaper meeting
    Kathleen Adams

    The bigger story about the meeting last night was the fact that the overwhelming majority of the standing-room only crowd was vehemently AGAINST the tower. Clearly, the developer assertions that most Evanstonians want the tower have been shown to be false. Almost everyone who spoke offered testimony against the tower, and many reported on the results of their own random polls that underscored the strong negative response the proposed skyscraper has generated amongst Evanstonians. Only a very small handful of people offered commentary in favor of the tower, and one of those pro-tower speakers did not even live in Evanston (one cannot help but wonder how he was allowed to testify and why was he even there).

    Newly-printed anti-skyscraper signs are now sprouting on lawns across Evanston, further testimony to the extent to which Evanstonians are aghast at the prospect of this skyscraper. I predict that in another few weeks, as the signs become more widely available, we will see still more anti-skyscraper signs. By the way, if you want a sign for your own yard, you can get one by putting in a request at the Evanston Coalition for Responsible Development site (http://www.evanstoncrd.org/ ). They will happily deliver one to you.

  3. The other side of the story
    I was one of those people whose comments were cut short by the new rule of P & D. However I am also in favor of the new rules. I will take this opportunity to post the comments that I would have liked to present last night.

    1. It seems like these days that to be Politically correct in Evanston you must be in opposition to all new proposed economically viable development and conversely to be politically incorrect in Evanston means that you Support and encourage economically viable development.

    2. For the most part, much of the history of the public’s perception of development in the downtown has been either “the sky is falling” or the world is coming to an end mentality. Do you all remember the very catchy bumper stickers about the “malling of Evanstown”
    a. Has the sky fallen or has the world come to an end? Has downtown become a mall? Of course not.
    b. Has the downtown become a series of canyons? No. Has there been gridlock? No. …Each time a new project gets proposed, the opposition claims are always the same, it is either to high, too dense, or too out of character with what downtown is or was. In reality downtown Evanston has once again become vital, energetic and a destination point for the nothshore and beyond.
    c. There have been many outcries for the city to manage its changing more effectively. The City’s response has been to develop RFP’s and receive proposals from some of the most forward thinking consultants in the Midwest and possibly the country. However ,the almost unanimous response from what I think is the very vocal minority has been to oppose the advice of each and every consultant. What is the point?

    3. Cynicism and conspiracy theories have become the operating perceptions of those in opposition of new development, our city staff and elected officials. “Executive sessiongate” was the rallying cry from many of those in opposition to the 708 Project. Some of those in opposition claim that The plan commission has been undermined, etc. For any members of the public who took the time to read the much heralded transcripts of the “Executive Session Gate” …you would have found that the only thing that our elected officials were guilty of …was to have an opinion. Pretty serious stuff. It’s hard to believe that some actually expect that our city council members will not have opinions about a potential new development and then, if they do have an opinion, they will no longer listen to anyone else.

    The real issue to me is the attempt by some of those in opposition to erode the “public trust.” It seems like the “McCarthy Era”. People will say anything make accusations and innuendoes to the detriment of people in our business community, our city staff, and our elected officials. These tactics have been used on more than just the 708 Church Project. These tactics are incredibaly destructive to those who are the recipients of such comments, but more so, to the public in general.

    4. With respect to the 708 Church Street project, in the plan commission hearings a lot of time was spent on the height of the base. If you stand on the corner of Church and Orrington, to the NW you have the Marshall Field building (approx seven stories); to the north you have the Orrington Hotel building (9 stories) to the northeast is the new library (approx 5 stories) and to the west you have Church street Plaza, with varying heights, and to the south you have the Hahn Building and the Fountain Square buildings, four and approx 8 stories. I don’t follow the logic of shortening the base.
    5. Is it just possible that the 708 Church building could be the beacon that the developers describe it as? Yes. Is it possible that down town will benefit as a result of this project? Yes. Is it possible that by its tall slender shape and LEED certification its carbon footprint will be substantially reduced, thus reducing its environmental impact, yes? Is it possible that Evanston may regain some of its legacy as a forward thinking community? I hope so.
    6. Evanston’s economic woes are complex, and I don’t think residential development is the only answer, but it is an answer. I do know however, that there are only a handful of ways to address our budget difficulties, cutting services, improving efficiencies, expanding the tax base or increasing real estate taxes. Adding the 708 building to the cities tax roles will expand our tax base and be a continuing source of income that will benefit Evanston as a whole and reduce the cost to live in Evanston by just a bit, which will help our children and grandchildren hopefully be able to live hear and make it just a bit easier for our senior citizens to stay here.
    Madame mayor and members of the council, you have just completed an exhaustive effort to complete the City’ Budget. Please remember your deliberations and the painful cuts that had to be made when evaluating the merits of this 100+ million dollar project. I enthusiastically encourage the Council to accept the plan Commission recommendation for approval of this project.

  4. The Debate Moved Away from the Developers
    Here is what Fox News said about the meeting: The proposal “squeaked through” the plan commission by a vote of 4 to 3; and “at tonight’s meeting we didn’t hear a single person in favor of it”. It is clear that Fox news noticed the overwhelming opposition to the skyscraper. I also watched Channel 5 and they started the story by saying that there was a “standing-room only crowd”.

    Monday night’s meeting was a testimony to American democracy and to the power of an organized community. Despite the hardships involved in getting involved in community issues and the changing rules (we were told we would have three minutes and then told one minute at the start of the meeting), Evanstonians turned out in large numbers to oppose with eloquence and vigor the proposed 49-story, over 500-foot Skyscraper. Throughout the many “one minute” statements there was thunderous applause when residents spoke out against the skyscraper. Even though a handful of people spoke in favor, only three people weakly clapped for the pro-skyscraper statements. What is also very important about last night’s meeting is that the anti-skyscraper comments were non-repetitive and filled with good arguments against the “tower.” Many more good arguments would have been expressed if we had been allowed three minutes. On the other hand, the tiny pro-skyscraper group resorted to general, vague statements like “don’t be afraid of development,” “people are usually against tall buildings”, etc. The presentation by the Evanston Coalition for Responsible was concise, to the point, and devastating for the pro-skyscraper side, since it showed that building the skyscraper will detract rather than add to Evanston’s revenue. If this skyscraper is such a great idea for Evanston, why can’t the developers show us the reasons why? The answer is that they can’t do it because the skyscraper is only a good idea for them — it’s a bad idea for the city. We want and need development; and development is going on all the time in Evanston — people remodel their homes, small-scale condo projects are constantly being built, and buildings are getting face-lifts. This battle is not over development as the pro-skyscraper folks feebly try to argue; this battle is over responsible and appropriate development. In sum, it was clear to the Aldermen that this city is vehemently opposed to the construction of a 49-story behemoth in our downtown and that the developers cannot demonstrate clearly that the building will be good for the city. Given this reality it would be difficult to swallow a vote that would allow this gargantuan building to be erected.

    If you want a lawn sign that says “SAVE EVANSTON – STOP THE TOWER” please go to http://www.evanstoncrd.org.

    Peter Sanchez

    1. Evanston Coalition for Responsible Building
      Peter,

      Why won’t you give the same credence to the 3 professional analyses that were completed by the Developer and the City. What happens when the city has the coalition report analyzed and finds it flawed. Will you claim it’s just a fix.

      By the way I was one of those present last night who is strongly in favor of the 708 Project. My prepared comments were also cut short and I still believe very strongly that the rules of the P& D committee are appropriate and were applied fairly to all.

  5. Full disclosure please
    Ron—

    In the interest of full disclosure, you should inform readers that you are a developer with projects in Evanston.

    If you read Peter’s post carefully, his main point was not about being cut short, but rather about the abundance of intelligent, carefully reasoned testimony by the “standing room only” crowd of Evanstonians testifying against the tower. As he pointed out, there were few people who testified in favor of the tower.

    Also, the Plan Commission vote was split, and the members with the most professional experience in the area of urban planning all voted against it. In addition, a member of the Plan Commission who retired just before that vote testified last night that he would have voted against the tower. He, too, has extensive experience in urban planning. I trust these urban planners much more than I trust non-resident developers.

    -Kathleen

    1. So, Ron is a developer.
      So, Ron is a developer. What’s wrong with that? I would be more suspicious if he were OPPOSING this tower, to prevent competition.

      As for this statement :

      “Also, the Plan Commission vote was split, and the members with the most profession experience in the area of urban planning all voted against it. ”

      Well, I also noticed that the anti-tower minority on the Plan Commission were
      mainly from the non-profit world. These people often have an anti-business, anti-development agenda. Kind of like some of our NU employees {and Loyola employees too! } in Evanston, they are against business, but in favor of spending.

      As the Plan Commission is unelected, and doesn’t having taxing and budget responsbilities, they are free to spout anti-progress nonsense.

      There were few people who testified in favor of the tower. So what? I stayed home last night..I don’t think that making noise at council meetings does any good.

      I think that Kamin’s architecture column in the Tribune was great. Even though he dislikes the design of the tower, he made sure to start his article by denouncing the ‘Luddite’ nature of the NIMBY’s. Like he says, Evanston isn’t Mayberry.

      { Hey…who’s paying for all those buttons, lawn signs, and websites?…since you don’t like anonymous posting, and you want full disclosure, please let us know. Your organization seems to be well financed. }

      1. High-Rise Non-Profit Finance
        Mr. Who Knows,

        Oh, yes, the Evanston Coalition is awash in cash — it must have cost millions to buy several hundred lawn signs, buttons and put up a website, especially since non-profit workers and college professors are so well paid. Actually, I’m very happy to see that the always-absent, pro-skyscraper folks are resorting to name-calling — Luddites, NIMBY’s, politically correct, etc — since it shows your arguments are devoid of facts and you are in desperate straights (I can thus understand why you chose to stay away from the meeting).

        Good luck chasing windmills (or skyscrapers)!

        1. High-Rise Non-Profit Nonsense
          So I guess you aren’t going to tell us where the money is coming from?

          I don’t think that referring to the anti-tower folks as NIMBY’s is name calling. Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on NIMBY:

          “Those opposed to development might argue against increases in local traffic, harm to small business, loss of property value, environmental degradation, loss of a community’s small-town feel, strain of public resources and schools, disproportionate benefit to non-locals or new residents, increases in crime, and failure to “blend in” with the surrounding architecture.”

          It really sounds like the author of this article was reading evanstonnow.com .

          As for Luddite, that was from the Trib architecural critic, who doesn’t like this particular tower design. You anti-tower folks would have more credibility if you spent your time working for a better design of the building, instead of just trying to prevent any development to save the precious shoe store and offices.

          Sincerely,

          Mr. Who Knows

          1. Disclosure?
            You want disclosure and you won’t even identify yourself? I’ll tell you where the money is coming from if you tell us who you are.

            Just because you are able to find a definition of a word in a dictionary or web page doesn’t mean the word does not constitute name-calling. There are many words that can be used to describe your behavior that we can easily find in the dictionary or a web page.

            It’s very telling that the vast majority of people who write in favor of the skyscraper hide behind anonymity.

    2. Full Disclosure
      Kathleen,
      I haven’t seen many people disclose what there professions are, besides, most people know that I am a developer, as you did.

      As far as full disclosure, does that hold true for you also and all those who post to this blog, or is it just for those who support the 708 project.

      My comments to Peter were about some of the testimony and why those that are in opposition to the project very selectively choose to comment on only certain testimony.

      My point was the City has already analyzed the developer’s information. It will hopefully analyze Mr. Kennedy’s analysis.

    3. Full Disclosure
      Kathleen,
      Didn’t know it was a requirement of posting to disclose one’ s occupation. Besides most people know that I am a developer. By the way, does full disclosure apply to you also. Or does it only apply to those who support the 708 project.
      My point to Peter’s comments were directed at the myopic view that those opposed to the project have in relation to what testimony they choose to believe and quote.

      I am looking forward to the City’s analysis to Mr. Kennedy’s report.

  6. Former anti-tower supporter
    I was an anti-tower supporter until I actually started to listen to both sides of the issue at the P&D meeting Monday evening. Even though there were few supporters of the tower, after listening to their brief arguments, it makes sense to me, from an economic and “beacon” point of view to approve the tower. I didn’t buy the “anti-tower” arguments – most of them seemed to be products of people who have difficulty with change. I like how the tower looks in the skyline as a beacon to Evanston and the city could sure use the tax dollars if anyone has paid attention to how services have been cut with the recent struggle to balance the budget. I am a 35 year Evanston resident and have never seen Evanston as vibrant and alive and have enjoyed all of the changes so far that have taken place. I’m going to trust in the process, the council and the consultants. I believe if people understood both sides of the issue, the “Stop the Tower” signs would diminish. I for one have pulled my sign out and thrown it in the trash.

  7. who will buy here?
    Even though I am “pro-tower” I think we need to consider if Evanston really needs extra condo units on the market right now. How the Winthrup Club actually got off the ground is mind boggling to me. The condo market is horrible. We have three new construction condos in downtown Evanston right now…not sure if people got the message, but the condo boom collapsed two years ago, and adding hundreds of units certainly isn’t going to help the problem. Even though I like the design of the building, it’s not going to look very nice with all of the lights off.

    1. The units will sell
      I see this argument all the time, yet I never see new condo buildings standing empty… anywhere… regardless of how bad the market is. There is certainly a risk of the developer losing his/her shirt on the deal, but the units won’t sit empty for very long. They might have to reduce the price on them until they sell, which might hurt surrounding property values, but again… the building won’t be standing there “empty”.
      Condo sales are still happening all the time in Evanston. Yes, it’s slowed down from where it was 4 or 5 years ago, but to say the condo market has collapsed completely is an exaggeration. Sherman Plaza had no problems selling out. (Insert “40% rental” argument here, but please don’t forget that someone still owns those units and pays taxes on them, even if they are being rented)
      I just don’t understand how marketing concerns would be a valid reason for local residents to oppose a project. It’s not our problem. I simply cannot foresee a situation where a building like this is built, and then left standing empty. Most projects like this have to have a certain percentage sold before the lenders will let construction begin anyway.

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