Evanston Plan Commission members offered sharply different reactions tonight to the draft downtown plan prepared by city consultants. 

Proposed zones

A map of the proposed new downtown zones. A key to the new height limits for each zone is below. 

Zoning key

Commissioner Colleen Burrus challenged the consultants to show where any members of the public spoke during meetings to develop the plan in favor of the 42-story height limit the plan proposes for the Fountain Square block.

“I’m pretty sure the public wouldn’t have agreed to this,” Burrus said, citing as evidence complaints about the 49-story tower proposed for the block that the commission has heard in recent hearings on that project.

Consultant John LaMotte of the Lakota Group responded that over 500 different people offered suggestions during the process of developing the plan. Some, LaMotte said, were fine with tall buildings downtown, while others said they want everything just three or four stories tall.

He said the plan, which calls for a range of height limits in different parts of downtown, some as low as three to five stories, represented the consultants’ best professional judgment based on all the differing input.

Commissioner Albert Hunter criticized the plan’s reference to the currently low-rise zoning limit in parts of the downtown core as a “fallen souffle” at variance with the traditional “wedding cake” zoning model that places the tallest buildings in the center of the city.

He suggested that the low-rise areas in the center give the city a Parisian feel. “I’m not against height or density,” Hunter said, “It’s where you put it that matters.”

But in interviews after the meeting Plan Commission Chairman James Woods and Commissioner Larry Widmayer voiced general satisfaction with the document, saying it outlines a model that should bring much more predictability to the development process and assure that new developments meet high design standards.

“The idea behind moving to a form-based code,” which the plan outlines, Widmayer said, “is that we can turn design standards that are only recommendations now into requirements that will be part of the zoning.”

Commissioner Hunter asked whether any of the public benefits the plan proposes would let developers qualify for extra building height could be made mandatory within the basic height limits.

Consultant Kirk Bishop of Duncan Associates said it would be possible to do that, but it would require setting higher base height limits. “Otherwise you would essentially shut off development. It would become economically infeasible to develop a building, meet the requirements and turn some semblance of a profit,” Bishop said.

Evanston’s aldermen, who will make the final decision on whether the plan is adopted, offered few comments about it tonight, except for suggestions from Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, and Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, that it will probably take additional meetings beyond a Plan Commission session scheduled for Nov. 6 to get a full range of public comment on the proposal.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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