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Planning consultant Jeanne Lindwall of 625 Library Place said the existing planned development process should be repealed, not just downtown, as called for in the new plan, but citywide.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.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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3 Comments

  1. Of course city wants as much “as right” as possible
    I certainly wasn’t surprised to read in your story that city officials told the downtown consultants to make deveopment in downtown “operate as of right” as much as possible. Of course pro-development Council would want projects to “be given final approval by City staff rather than requiring Plan Commssion and City Council debate.”

    It’s in that pesky little item called ‘public debate’ that democracy actually occurs. And by taking Plan Commission (which requires public comment) out of the picture, there’s really not much room for democracy in this picture, is there? Let’s just go ahead and let the developers build what they want, with the rubber-stamp of staff and Council approval. Why not just put Evanston up for sale?

    I am very curious as to whether you’ll post this comment.

  2. as of right
    to Ms. Rakley; there is also the pesky little matter of Private Property and the right to do as one pleases on it. The government’s duty is to insure the health, safety, and welfare of the public and to verify that the infrastructure is not overly burdened by new buildings – that’s it. Aesthetics is not a subject that the zoning or building code can or should control. And Planning Councils are all too capricious when it comes to judging the appearance of a building from one day to the next.
    The time to provide your elected officials with your opinions happens during these open forums like these Design Evanston meetings. I’ve witnessed the ‘public debate’ at the Plan Commission meetings and public comment sessions; that is not Democracy, it’s Anarchy where the loudest voice wins.
    City officials want more projects to go “as of right” because it means less work for them and acts as a shield against public outcry. The zoning and planning process in Evanston is decrepit and the gross hyperbole and cynicism such as yours (Let’s just go ahead and let the developers build what they want, with the rubber-stamp of staff and Council approval.) perpetuate the problem.
    How about we define some clear guidelines for developing, evolving and growing the downtown area, and the rest of Evanston; something grounded in economic, social, and logistical reality, and then let’s just let it happen.

  3. What architects want
    E. Harris is right on the money. Very well written commentary. Good for you!

    I urge a process includes testing of proposed zoning changes. i.e. get a group of architects to design mock projects within the bounds of a proposed change and see what happens. See the clever and/or disastrous ideas emerge. The results will surely surprise everyone. Zoning changes (all laws) always produce results that nobody anticipated.

    I want to say that I absolutely agree with Mr. Macsai that the City Council should not be playing designer. Design by committee is a death knell for any creative project. But neither should any panel of “design professionals” have authority over an architect’s design, which I understand Mr. Macsai advocates. I respectfully submit that architects should abandon the term “design progressional.” It suggests that architects have some superior ability when it comes to design. The fact of the matter is that a vast majority of architects have not been endowed with a native talent for design. It’s a gift; it’s not something taught in architecture school. Let’s recognize that in any given architectural firm only one or two people are designers; the majority are technicians and the rest are salesmen and managers. i.e. people who are technically proficient at business matters rather than architecture. (Hopefully, this group includes that 8% of the male population who is color blind.) The other reality is that even the designers are not always successful at achieving a good design. Indeed, every design has flaws. Then, we can begin to rate the design competence of the various firms and what do we find? That we don’t like many of them. Let’s face it, we all (including Mr. Mascai) don’t like the results of what most architects design. A lot of it is simply marginal or even bad (think Sherman Plaza).

    So what to do? There is only one thing to be done. It’s the same thing we do regarding the decisions our neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances make about the clothes they wear. We keep our mouths shut.

    And this will streamline everything.

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