The Plan Commission Wednesday night approved new limits on the height of houses, designed to respond to complaints from some northwest Evanston residents who don’t like the big homes their neighbors are building.

The new rules would change the way the city measures building height — setting an upper limit of 35 feet to the peak of the roof.

The limit now is also 35 feet — but measured as the average height of the roof. That, in the case of a gable roof, could lead to a peak height of as much as 44 feet, according to estimates from city staff.

Here’s one way to look at the proposed new rule.

Imagine a house, like the one in the drawing,  that was 25 feet wide, built on grade and had a floor-to-floor height of 10 feet for each of its first two stories.

It could then have a half-story above that, like the one shown in the drawing, with three foot knee walls and, with a 45 degree pitch to its gable roof, would reach the maximum height allowed under the proposed ordinance, 35 feet, at the roof peak.

If the house had a partially exposed basement, the roof slope would have to be reduced, which in turn would reduce the amount of livable area on the third floor, unless the owners wanted to reduce the ceiling height on the first and second floors.

Northwest Evanston resident Jeff Smith told commissioners Wednesday night that he thinks the new rules don’t go far enough to stop new homes from “dwarfing” the older homes next to them.

But Commission Chair Scott Peters said that concern needed to be balanced with preserving the option for people who now live in small houses to expand their homes to gain more living space.

Peters said the rules also would create difficulties elsewhere in town.

“In parts of Evanston many existing buildings exceed the 35-foot limit,” Peters added.

The proposed ordinance attempts to deal with that by letting existing homes that are more than 50 years old or are located in historic districts be rebuilt to their original height if they were damaged by a fire or similar calamity.

Top: Homes at 2426 to 2430 Hastings Ave. Above: The home at 2430 Hastings, before its recent expansion.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, told the Plan Commission that he’s one of the people pushing for the changes.

“There’s been a little mini-boom of new construction, and that’s great,” Tendam said, “but it comes at the expense of existing neighborhoods.”

He said the new buildings “are massive structures, without much character, that have been designed to gain as much vertical space as they possibly can.”

“They impose themselves on the adjoining properties,” Tendam added.

Three-block long Hastings Avenue in northwest Evanston — where some large new homes (above) are just doors away from some much smaller homes (below) seems to be an epicenter for concerns about the height issue.

Plan Commissioners seemed to be confident that the new rules offered reasonably consistent treatment for buildings with many different roof styles — including gable, hip, gambrel and mansard.

But they left flat-roofed contemporary-style homes somewhat adrift — requiring a variance process to deal with height limit issues for those.

Final action on the proposed ordinance changes will be up to the City Council.

Related story

Evanston wants to shrink home expansion options

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. The alderman’s addition

    I would be interested in hearing Mark Tendam's rationalization of the size of his recent addition to his home.  His roof line would not be possible with the proposed restrictions that he is in favor of.  Was he concerned about imposing on his neighbor's house to the west that is substantially shorter?  I guess that it is OK to change the rules for all of us since his project is complete.  

    1. Addition is not higher than the rest of the house

      Actually, the addition, which is to the rear part of the alderman's home, is no higher than the front of the house and is approximately the same height as his next-door neighbor's to the south.

      1. Missing the point

        The house to the West is just as valid of a neighbor as the house to the South.  The point is that under the proposed restrictions the addition could not be built as it currently stands.  I do not have a problem with his addition.  I would just like to have the same opportunity when I have my addition designed.

  2. The addition is higher than the home to the west

    Actually,Tendam's addition is much higher than his next-door neighbor's house to the west, 2940 Harrison. The addition and 2940 Harrison both face Harrison Street.

  3. Height ordinance has more loopholes than limits

    This article is pretty good, except for the inaccurate parts, which would be the headline, the overall thrust, the characterization of my comments, and the suggestion that this is all northwest-Evanston driven. Overall, the new ordinance will actually allow more construction of "third stories."

    Some of the misunderstanding is understandable, since this came out of staff and to the Commission apparently because of some citizens' and staff concerns (I was not one who complained, so I don't know who exactly) about current rules being gamed, resulting in some new construction "dwarfing" neighboring homes (that language, again, was some that can be found in staff memos). So it's been framed mainly as limitations. But the ordinance deals with the supposed "advantages" some construction styles have in gaming the system, not by cutting back on those, so much as by expanding who can play that game, and how.

    I appeared earlier before the Commission this summer on this, and had extended discussion mainly about a previous iteration of the dormer limits, which seemed both arbitrary and confusing, and which, examination revealed, under both existing Code and proposed changes made thousands of homes in Evanston non-conforming. Staff did address some of those concerns and the clarifications are an improvement, so that not so many homes in Evanston would be considered nonconforming.

    Wednesday night, I don't believe I said the changes "don't go far enough," and Bill knows, since I gave him a copy, that the written comments I gave to the Commission didn't say that. The essence of my remarks was that the ordinance seems to do the opposite of what it says it's about, allowing more third-story construction rather than less, and I suggested that it would incentivize teardowns, especially in now relatively-affordable areas of Evanston, confronting owners of more modest homes with significantly taller and bulkier structures next door.

    I thank Bill for including his helpful illustration but direct readers to my explanation of the changes.

  4. Is it Form Based Codes?

    Maybe it's just moving towards "Form Based Codes", which makes a lot of sense to me.  The idea of incorporating the actual "design" of the form of a building into zoning is critically important.  Let's try to envision what that means.  Take a big box, representing all of the limits of the zoning ordinance (height, width, set back) sitting on a lot.  Now take that same box and start carving out some angled roof areas, niches, etc. and it has a totally different appearance on the lot.  There is a way to be sensitive to existing blocks, while still meeting the demands/needs of new lifestyles. 

    Some call this sort of thing loopholes…


  5. Facts are important

    While I do not usually respond to anonymous blog posts, I need to make an exception here to ensure that everyone has a very clear understanding of the facts. It's fine if you disagree with the modifications proposed to the code for R1, R2, R3, R4 and R4a (residential zones). However, some of the posts that I have seen on this blog state that the addition I made to my home in 2010 would not have been possible had these code modifications been in place at that time. These posts are simply wrong.

    My addition (which was built without variance and received a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission) conforms completely with the code modifications that I support. The roof of my original house peaks just under 34' from grade. The new addition is about 2' shorter at 32' from grade and both have gabled roofs. The proposed amendment on residential height allows 35'. But here's the thing, under the existing code, we could, potentially, have made our addition 44'. That would have been out of scale for our house and the surrounding neighborhood but nevertheless, the current code allows this sort of manipulation. The proposed changes in height are designed, in part, to close this loop hole.

    However, the height restriction of 35' is only one of the six major proposed changes of the residential code. Most of the other changes are intended to expand the possibilities in house styles and auxiliary buildings that don't have gabled roofs.

    Again, I am not intending to stop the conversation here. I am following it closely and want to hear from people. That said, I think the facts are important.

  6. Bad for Evanston

    This is bad for Evanston. It protects the interests of a few entrenched homeowners at the expense of growth and development for Evanston as a whole. Why are you discouraging the building of larger, more expensive homes? Because you don't personally like how they look? Aldermen treat Evanston like their personal fiefdom.

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