The handful of architects and planners attending Thursday’s Design Evanston meeting at the Civic Center strongly supported streamlining the review process for new downtown developments.
The existing system, architect James Torvik of 212 Dempster St. said, "is a quagmire of approvals and rejections that don’t mean much, because the City Council can override any and all of the earlier decisions."
"We can make beautiful plans" for new buildings, Torvik said, "but unless you have a managable path to proceed through, you’ll end up with nothing."
City consultant Tom Smith of Duncan Associates said city officials have told the consultants as they prepared the new draft master plan for downtown to "make as much as possible operate as of right," so projects could be given final approval by city staff rather than requiring Plan Commission hearings and City Council debate.
Planning consultant Jeanne Lindwall of 625 Library Place said the existing planned development process should be repealed, not just downtown, as called for in the new plan, but citywide.
Retired architect John Macsai of 1501 Hinman Ave. said the planned development process made aldermen designers, a job "for which they’re not qualified."
The planned development process was created in part as a way of providing some control over the appearance of new buildings, after the city law department ruled that the city lacked the power to impose mandatory design standards.
But Lindwall said the state legislature recently approved legislation establishing that binding design review is permitted, and the draft plan calls for adopting a set of mandatory design standards.
Architect David Galloway, of 728 Noyes St., a member of the city’s Plan Commission, said, "It makes sense for a developer to get the design review as early in the process as possible." Under the current system, he said, "we find at the Plan Commission that there hasn’t been that review earlier on."
"So the developers end up having spent a boatload of money, and the architect has a big emotional investment in the design presented," Galloway said, "but it gets shot down late in the game because the design just doesn’t cut it."
While the group seemed generally supportive of the new draft master plan for downtown, members raised a variety of issues.
Macsai said he saw "some problems" with the bonus system city consultants have proposed.
There’s a bonus for green roofs, Macsai said, but you really can’t enforce that because you don’t know what it will look like until after the project is built.
By contract, he said, the proposed bonus for placing parking underground is probably insufficient for an area like Evanston where the water table is very high and it’s very expensive to build underground parking.
Smith said the consulting team is just suggesting a strategy for handling bonuses at this point and that "we still need to have disccussions about how much" the bonuses should be.
Torvik and others at the meeting voiced concerns that the plan would permit only buildings that provided equal setbacks on all four sides of upper floors, based on drawings in the document showing that pattern.
Macsai said that existing Evanston high rises don’t have the equal-setback "wedding cake" look and that’s established a visual language for the community.
Smith said that except in the low-rise traditional areas the plan expresses setback requirements simply as a lot coverage percentage, and that architects would be free to decide where on the lot to provide the setbacks and could choose to build a straight, slender tower as long as it met the overall lot coverage and height limits.
But Torvik responded that if an architect wanted to build straight up, the whole building would have to be as narrow as what the code permitted for the top floors, effectively reducing the total floor area allowed for a straight-sided building.
Lindwall said she believed the public has not yet had enough opportunity to comment about the zoning district boundaries set out in the draft plan.
But Smith said boundaries in a plan don’t need to be as precise as zoning boundaries and that once the plan is adopted the zoning details will be worked out in a series of hearings by the Plan Commission’s Zoning Committee.
The Plan Commission will hold a special meeting to hear public comments on the draft downtown plan at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chamber at the Civic Center. That meeting is scheduled to be broadcast live on the city’s cable access channel.
Online copies of the draft plan and related documents are available on the city’s website.