Plan panel eyes downzoning Emerson near downtown

Evanston's Plan Commission is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a proposal to downzone land north of Emerson Street just west of downtown -- which brings goals of encouraging transit-oriented development and new affordable housing into conflict with preserving existing neighborhood character.

The area -- roughly bounded by Green Bay Road, Emerson and the former Mayfair railroad right of way -- was designated R5 by the city's 1993 zoning ordinance -- a classification that permits buildings five stories high, with the potential of an extra story for planned developments.

A 2005 neighborhood plan suggested reducing the height limit to three-and-a-half stories, but the recommendation had never been acted on.

That changed when a developer in late 2018 proposed building 44 condominiums in two five-story buildings on seven lots at the corner of Emerson Street and Jackson Avenue -- the first sizable new construction in the area since the 1970s.

Neighbors attacked the developer's plans and scared him off. And Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, whose 5th Ward includes the area, asked city staff to move forward with the downzoning idea.

But a consultant hired by the owner of properties the developer had planned to buy says downzoning would be a mistake.

George Kisiel of Okrent Kisiel Associates says the zoning change would reduce the developable floor area of his client's property by about a third.

Kisiel says that means redevelopment in the area would lead, under the city's inclusionary housing ordinance, to the creation of fewer affordable housing units.

It would also, he says, dramatically reduce the potential property tax revenue the city could realize from redevelopment in the area -- potentially by nearly $1.5 million a year.

He also argues that the area -- no more than a 15 minute walk to three train stations -- is a prime one for higher-density transit-oriented development -- something the city has tried to encourage in recent years.

But Christopher Gotschall and Timothy Samuel, who own a home in the neighborhood at 1910 Wesley Ave., say in a letter to the Plan Commission, that the proposed downzoning is the least the city could to protect the area from "density that is inconsistent with the character of our evolving neighborhood and that could negatively impact the quality of life."

City staff notes that in addition to accepting or rejecting the proposed zoning change, the commission could recommend leaving the zoning unchanged in part of the area, but proposing a change in the rest.

Whatever the Plan Commission recommends, adopting any change will ultimately be up to the City Council.

The Plan Commission meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in Room G300 at the Civic Center.

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Comments

Develop the Emerson/Dodge Corridor

Hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to restrict the development of those parcels.  But let's be clear -- if this had been that church with its "Affordable Housing" proposal, Alderman Rue Simmons would absolutely have supported it.  So it's not the height or the density or the zoning that is her issue -- it's the possible gentrification.  

And you've gotta love the homeowners subtly playing the race card.  (Bonus points for squeezing the word "equitably" in there.  Though I'm going to have to deduct a few for their use of bold.)  They bought a house just off Emerson...on the alley...adjacent to where the proposed development would have been.  But they want to clarify that it's not about them...it's about Evanston's systemic racism that burdens the 5th Ward with more density while letting those rich people in R1 and R2 districts not do their fair share.

What is the vision for Emerson St.?  Because, to me, it seems clear that Emerson between downtown and Dodge should not only not be downzoned -- it shoudn't even be zoned R in the first place.  It should be mixed residential/business and zoned as some sort of Business District.  It is walking distance to downtown and multiple trains.  It is the connection between downtown and Dodge (and the west side) and is served by one of Evanston's three CTA bus lines.  Part of Emerson is already zoned B1 or B2.  There is existing empty land as well as properties that have lived a good life and should be replaced.  

Does the City have a vision?  Alderman Rue Simmons says she wants more services and more investment and organic food stores.  Is downzoning (and overly restrictive Residential zoning) the way to achieve those goals?  I don't think so -- particularly not on Emerson.

Evanston should be actively developing the entire Emerson/Dodge 93 Bus corridor.  That is the transportation artery that serves the "underserved" west side.  It gets people downtown and into Chicago.  It connects the Purple and Brown lines.  It goes right by the high school, an elementary school, the senior center, James Park, the Robert Crown center and Evanston Plaza.  

All the talk about equity...and the underserved communities of the west side...all the talk about transit-oriented development and Evanston being an environmental leader and encouraging public transporation use and less vehicle miles.  All that talk and you're going to downzone Emerson?  Really?

development opposition

Is there ever a major, or even moderate, development proposal that does not get vehemently opposed no matter where it is planned within Evanston? Maybe on Howard, but it seems like there is almost always strong opposition  to building anything, and "neighborhood character" is soemthing we have heard before.  The true motivation may or may not be anti-gentrificaion, but it is hard to tell if it is different from development oppoostion we so often see.

Rather than calling people race-card players it might be more constructive to point out how downzoning works against other stated goals of the city council.  The fifth ward alderman has stated that she wants a full service grocery store on Emerson just west of Ashland.  The intent is to provide the convenience of walkabiliy for peple in that neighborhood who do not have cars. IMO walkability is great and I would like to see more of it. However, a grocer needs customers. And a grocer who relies on customers who walk needs to have a lot of people who live wihtin walking distance.  So opposing bulding a more dense housing development works agains the goal of walkability.

It is hard to see how she can have the convenience of high density urban neighborhoods while "preserving the character of the neighborhood" which is low density residential.

More Townhomes Please

I'm very interested in the possibility of more townhomes being built in the Greenbay area mentioned and, along quite a few sections of Emerson. There aren't enough home ownership options. The price range between smaller but more affordable condo and, much pricier but more spacious single family home ownership, is a steep one for many Evanston small families. Townhomes are a good middle of the road solution, in my opinion but, they are pretty scarce.