Evanston aldermen voted Monday to give local religious leaders three more weeks to come up with an alternative to an alderman’s plan to restrict religious institutions in commercial districts.

The Rev. Mark Dennis pleads for more time.

Evanston aldermen voted Monday to give local religious leaders three more weeks to come up with an alternative to an alderman’s plan to restrict religious institutions in commercial districts.

The Rev. Mark Dennis pleads for more time.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, called for the delay, saying the city had failed when initially developing the ordinance to make the church leaders part of the discussion.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, who developed the plan to require churches to seek approval from the City Council as a special use before locating in business, commercial or downtown zoning districts, opposed the delay, saying the negative cumulative effect of the clusters of storefront churches on Howard Street in her ward “is overwhelming.”

The Rev. Mark Dennis of Evanston’s 2nd Baptist Church said churches don’t demean the character and quality of life in a community, and that the value of a building’s use shouldn’t be measured only the the tax revenue it generations.

He said volunteers from many churches provide help for the poor and don’t ask the city to cover that cost. They also shop in the community and generate economic activity for the community in other ways.

But Alderman Rainey said Chicago doesn’t allow churches in commercial areas. She argued the restriction would not be a denial of religous freedom.

The city currently requires special use approval for churches in residential zones, and Rainey said she would support eliminating that restriction if the special use requirement was added for the commercial zones. But that change isn’t part of the ordinance before the council.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said the city might not want to make churches a by-right use in residential zones.

Traditionally, churches have drawn opposition in residential zones because of concerns about parking and traffic congestion during religious services.

By contrast, Rainey’s objection to them in commercial zones has focused on the idea that, because they are closed most of the week, they have a deadening effect on traffic to nearby businesses.

Wilson suggested that any increase in churches in commercial areas is likely more a function of landlords not being able to find other tenants, than the result of “an overwhelming rush to religion.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said he’d have city staff arrange a meeting with the religious leaders and other interested parties after Thanksgiving and before the council’s next meeting on Dec. 13 to try to come up with a compromise.

Aldermen Monday also voted to purchase two properties on Howard Street. One is a single-story structure at 727-29 Howard, now partly occupied by a storefront church, for which the aldermen agreed to pay up to $325,000.

A building the city has agreed to buy at 727-729 Howard St. that is partly occupied by a storefront church.

The other property to be acquired is a three-story mixed-use building at 629-31 Howard St., for which the city has set a maximum price of $237,650.

The acquistions would be paid for with funds from the Howard-Ridge tax increment financing district. No indication of what plans the city has for the buildings was provided during the council meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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1 Comment

  1. Storefront Church=Empty Streets?

    OK, I get it.  A string of storefront churches in a row that are only open on Sunday mornings make for a less-than-lively business district on a weekday morning, even one as struggling as Howard Street.  The problem, as I see it, is the single-use nature of these establishments, which are used only a few hours each week.  Can we not use some creativity to find weekday/evening uses for these spaces and keep the churches? 

    Could the rent be shared 50/50 with an entity that would use the space at times other than Sunday mornings?  At yesterday’s zoning meeting, a zoning variance was denied for a proposed senior day-center up on Davis Street, as the downtown area was considered too busy for such a use.  Why can’t the senior center locate in one or more of these churches and create some vitality during the week?  And both the church and center would be paying only half-rent each, though presumably the senior center would be paying market-rate taxes as a corporation while the church would be exempt from same.

    Then there is the Branch Library (sigh!).  Could the South Branch be relocated to one of these churches, again to be open weekdays, evenings and Saturdays, but closed Sundays when church is having its services?  Again, rent split 50/50 between the library and church would seem attractive to me either as a taxpayer or church congregant, and that huge rent cost savings to the church and business/public space would presumably ameliorate the nuisance of switching uses each week .  An especially attractive use to me would be to try out the concept of "library outpost" that Michele Hays proposed here, which is less driven by physical books on shelves and more by information technology, which could easily be folded up and locked in a closet or carrel when not in use.

    How about placing a nice clothing boutique, a shoe store, a computer seller (Evanston’s first Apple store?) in these churches for mutual benefit and gaining a livlier commercial presence on the street during the week?  I’ve read of very innovative entrepreneurs in Europe who have a hip clothing shop open during the day, then convert the space into a trendy restaurant or bar each evening, so that the storefront gains 16+ hours of usage each day, and incidentally, the neighborhood remains lively at all times.  "Oh, Howard Street is too dangerous, no one wants to open a shop or patronize the businesses in the area if it can be at all avoided…."  Well, ya know what?  That area will always be a blighted no-man’s land, particularly at night, UNLESS some vibrant commercial activity opens up shop there.  Splitting church/business usage of a space seems like a way to entice an open-minded (or even idealistic) entrepreneur to try it out without too big an investment.  Prohibiting storefront churches and creating empty storefronts in their place isn’t in anyone’s interest.  If a storefront church was outbidding a vibrant business for rental of a specific property, that might be another matter, but I really don’t think this is the case.

    Could one of these storefront churches open up their own social center, religious bookstore, vegetarian cafe, what-have-you, rather than partnering with an outside entrepreneur?  Sure, as long as the zoning stipulates that the non-church business is taxable and remains open x-number of hours during the weekday and evenings, why not? The additional desired weekday street presence would still be accomplished, though the church-run business would have to make more than the split rent deal to make any sense.

     

     

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