Evanston Plan Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the new master plan for the Central Street corridor and send it to the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee for further review.
A rendering of an imagined commercial streetscape from the master plan document.
The approval came despite complaints from several neighborhood activists that the plan does not go far enough in downzoning the area to prevent new development they dislike.
“This is not an area crying out for development,” Jeff Smith, president of the Central Street Neighbors Association, said, “Central Street is a viable, working, functional neighborhood. It’s not broke. Don’t fix it. To sustain and enhance the neighborhood we need downzoning.”
“Those who would like to redevelop the area are circling like sharks,” he added, “There’s lots of money to be made, but not for the benefit of the neighborhood.”
He said the average height of buildings along Central Street now is just 20 feet, and he’d like to see it stay that way.
Several commissioners challenged Mr. Smith’s dire predictions, noting that much new development along Central has fallen far short of existing height limits and suggesting that the continued presence of many older, low-rise buildings in the area indicates that there are fewer developers circling than he imagines.
Richard Wright of 2603 Hartzell St. echoed Mr. Smith’s concerns and suggested the area should be downzoned to permit a maximum of two stories.
The plan calls for maintaining existing height limits in some zones, but reducing limits in others.
The changes include lowering the maximum height in R4 residential areas from 35 to 30 feet, in R5 residential areas from 50 feet to 45 feet and in B1a business areas from 40 to 35 feet.
It also call for maintaining the existing 45 foot limit in B2 business and C1 and C2 commercial zones, but adding a rule limiting buildings in those zones to no more than four stories.
Mary Rosinski of 1729 Chancellor St. said residents also want to eliminate the planned development process that allows developers of larger projects to seek greater height that the basic zoning rules permit.
The plan calls for streetscape improvements that the consultants’ report estimates would cost $1,417 per lineal foot. Given the opposition of residents to substantial new development, it appears there will be little opportunity to tap developers to fund those changes — the approach used to fund streetscape improvements along Chicago Avenue in South Evanston.
That would leave taxpayers footing a nearly $20 million bill if the improvements were applied to the full length of Central and the short stretch of Green Bay Road included in the study.
Planning Director Dennis Marino said it was important to approve the streetscape proposal immediately so that it could be included in this year’s capital improvement program funding process, which takes place over the summer.
He proposed, and the commissioners agreed, to refer the plans rezoning proposals to the commission’s zoning committee for further discussion.
Commissioner Albert Hunter won support for his proposal that the plan be amended to place more emphasis on developing the several parks along Central Street to be more than just grass and trees and have a variety of different uses.
The draft plan had focused attention almost exclusively on Independence Park in the heart of the business district just west of Green Bay Road.
The plan also calls for redesigning the Stewart Avenue parking lot adjacent to Independence Park, for exploring the feasibility of a parking structure on the open parking lot just west of Ryan Field and seeking funding to improve and reconstruct the CTA and Metra viaducts on Central Street.
Attorney James Murray, representing the owners of two businesses at Crawford Avenue and Gross Point Road, said that increased setbacks and other changes called for by the plan would make it nearly impossible for the properties to be redeveloped.
“Both of these are family-owned businesses,” Mr. Murray said, “and the properties represent a substantial part of the assets the owners are counting on as part of their retirement plans.”
“It’s a wonderful plan,” he added, “but there are costs associated with it, and individual property owners are not in a position to bear the expenses.”
Copies of the Central Street plan and other documents related to it are available on the city’s web site.
Central Street Neighbors support plan that protects neighborhood
The account of the June 20 Plan Commission meeting, by focusing on points of disagreement, may give some the misimpression that the Central Street Neighbors Association either opposes all development on Central Street, or opposes the plan moving through the City, or both. A more accurate statement is that we support the general thrust of the Plan, but want it toughened so that it can achieve its original goals, and does not merely give us sidewalk planters when what is needed is zoning change to protect residents and independent retail.
The Central Street Neighbors Association has never opposed this planning. On the contrary, we’ve been a full and active partner in the process, and it would not be ongoing without the activism of many residents, many now our members, who for years have been requesting real planning rather than the ad hoc, block-by-block, angry battles that several previous projects triggered.
In our communications to the planners and the City, we’ve stressed that we support many elements of the draft Central Street Master Plan. In fact, the Plan reflects numerous of our ideas and input. On April 12, I sent all local media a memo listing these important points, and on June 20, I began my remarks to the Commission by recapping these areas of agreement. However, this was not reported.
In particular, CSNA supports the following elements of the Master Plan:
- changing setbacks in commercial areas to 14′, and to 30’ at the Gross Point-Central-Crawford area (although many correctly observe that measuring from lot line makes more sense than from curbs, which vary)
- emphasis on form-based zoning, and in particular encouraging upper stories of new construction to be “stepped”, or set back further than the ground floor, to allow more light and avoid a constricting effect
- a recommended 18′ standard alley width
- downzoning the business district from Hartrey (Great Harvest) to Eastwood (Mustard’s Last Stand), as was done in the West Central (Harold’s, Hartigan’s etc) district
- modifying the current B1a designation to reduce maximum height from 40’ to 35’
- adding additional parking in the main business district
- limiting R5 zoning to 4 stories
- improvements to Independence Park
- attempts to channel pedestrian crossings toward safer and better-defined points
- maintaining a low-rise profile for Green Bay north of Central, and requiring alley access for any substantive change to the character of that existing built environment
- improvement for the NU/stadium parking lot site, with particular attention to drainage, landscaping, and improved parking accessible for the neighborhood and for patrons and employees of the business district
- narrowing the street in the business district between Lincolnwood and Marcy,
- resurfacing streets and sidewalks where necessary.
and, it should go without saying,
Again, none of these many important points of agreement have been reported. However, a full discussion is posted on our website (www.centralstreetneighbors.com).
I stated that Central Street is not “broke.” That is a far cry from saying that no improvements are necessary. As a bicyclist, in particular, I am personally acutely aware of the poor condition of much of the street surface, and I urged, in numerous panel discussions, better and safer pedestrian crossings.
But it’s crucial to recognize that this planning process was never driven by citizen demand for new curbs or pavers, so if that’s all we end up with, it will have been a betrayal. The current process occurred in response to the continuing concern that Central Street is “overzoned,” that rising land values have created financial incentive for developers to build as big and as dense as possible, and that existing zoning, coupled with “planned developments,” was failing to protect neighborhood character. The dynamic is circular: once a few developments are able to build to the maximum (or beyond), nearby land values rise, creating pressure to build as big/dense as possible in order to recoup investment and make profit. Thus, allowing overdevelopment ends up driving further overdevelopment — in an area that does not need redeveloping.
In sum, CSNA supports the thrust of the Plan, but is responsibly pointing out that, as presented, it needs more “teeth” to meaningfully achieve its most important goal. Our position, a reasonable compromise, allows careful, considerate development consistent with this special, predominantly low-rise district. If you love Central Street, please support the CSNA position for an improved Central Street Master Plan.
“Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government.”
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