Evanston’s Planning and Development Committee is scheduled Monday night to discuss creating a Community Design Commission to conduct early reviews of planned development proposals.

The new group, composed of community volunteers with backgrounds in architecture, urban design, real estate, law and other relevant fields, would take over some aspects of the role previously handled by city staff who served on the recently abolished Design and Project Review Committee.

The design commission idea was initially advanced by Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) and is being co-sponsored by Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th) and Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th).

In a memo to the committee, Planner Cade Sterling says he looked at similar panels in nearly two dozen communities in coming up with recommendations for how to create such a group for Evanston.

He says he found the structures of panels in six communities most relevant. Those include ones in four college towns — Ann Arbor, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; Urbana, Illinois, and Palo Alto, California — and two major cities — Chicago and Atlanta.

Except for Chicago, the six communities on the list have much lower population density — 3,000 to 4,400 residents per square — than Evanston’s density of 10,000 residents per square mile.

Those communities split on whether the design review is binding or advisory, and Sterling recommends that Evanston’s design review should be advisory only.

In five of the six communities the design commission enforces design overlay district rules. Sterling suggest that Evanston’s panel should not do that.

A chart from the staff memo showing how the Design Commission might fit into the city’s development proposal review process.

He suggests that review by the new panel would be required for planned developments, city-initiated projects and ones using public financing.

It would be optional for various other projects including ones adjacent to landmarks and historic districts and most other developments except for single family homes, which wouldn’t be reviewed by the panel.

He recommends that the reviews happen early in the development process when proposals “remain flexible and mutually beneficial recommendations can be implemented.”

He says that’s a contract with how most of other communities handle their design reviews — late in the development process when changes are “either infeasible or cost prohibitive.”

The proposal envisions that the commission would complete its review of a project within 70 days — potentially adding months to the already lengthy review process for new developments in Evanston.

Among several questions the memo asks the committee to consider is whether forming the new design commission should wait until after a new comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance is adopted — a process that’s expected to take roughly two years.

Update: The Planning and Development Committee on June 26 postponed discussion of the Community Design Commission proposal for lack of time.

After discussion at its July 10 meeting, the Planning and Development Committee directed staff to postpone further consideration of creating a Community Design Commission until after the city’s new Comprehensive Plan is completed.

Developing the Comprehensive Plan is expected to take about two years.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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