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Aldermen question downtown planning

Evanston aldermen are scheduled to take a second look Thursday at hiring consultants to develop a new plan to guide downtown development.

The staff proposal to spend $236,324 on the consultants comes in the wake of similar consultant-driven planning for Central Street and the Mayfair Corridor on the West Side. It drew sharp questions from some aldermen when it was first discussed April 23.

Assistant City Manager Judy Aiello said staff developed the proposal after aldermen late last year said they weren't satisfied with the proposed year-long time line for doing the downtown planning job in house. With the consultants on board, staff hopes to have the new plan in place by September.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he had doubts about whether the public participation process used in the two other neighborhoods would work for downtown.

"I'm not sure whether downtown fits that mold, it's so dynamic and there are so many stakeholders," Ald. Jean-Baptiste said, "I'm not sure whether such a process will end up being useful in terms of the money spent."

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she was concerned that the planning process "always seems to be in response to the negatives."

"Plenty of people in this community love downtown and like the new buildings and aren't afraid of some height," she said, "without them we wouldn't have a downtown, but then what we hear is the people who live in tall buildings who are the first to oppose construction of the next tall building."

Ald. Jean-Baptiste added, "I don't think we should be dictated to by interest groups that may be living in a 23-story building who say you can't build a 15-story one a block away."

"I think we should have more discussion of how to engage all the different stakeholders," he said.

Planning Director Dennis Marino said, "You shouldn't assume that the consultants' recommendations will be for lower density. Part of what the study is trying to get at is where high density makes the most sense. Now we have some transitional areas, at the edge of downtown, that are zoned for higher density than core blocks."

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, suggested the possibility of a moratorium on downtown development during the process.

"Don't we need a timeline? And can't we say no more development there until we're done?" Ald. Holmes asked.

Ms. Aiello said the council could do that, but she doubted the need for a moratorium. Other than the tower proposal for the Fountain Square block, she said the rush of projects seems to be over for this summer. "So I think realistically we have some time now," she added.

Alderman Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, said, "I see some sense of urgency in getting this process moving. In my mind the transitional areas are vital and those are the ones that seem to be most in jeopardy."

Thursday's special meeting of the Planning and Development Committee will be held at 7:30 p.m. in Room 2200 of the Civic Center.

The existing downtown plan is now 18 years old, and downtown zoning was last revised in 1993. With substantial new development since then, and more projects on the way, the aldermen have agreed that it's time to make some revisions.

In addition to preparing a revised downtown plan, the proposed contract with the consultants calls for developing a pilot form-based zoning code for a portion of the downtown area, developing other recommendations for downtown zoning, updating a study of the downtown real estate market and the impact of form-based zoning on the market and conducting a field study to determine whether the city is requiring the right amount of off-street parking in new downtown housing developments.

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