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Council lets downtown moratorium expire

Evanston’s six-month moratorium on issuing building permits downtown ends today.

An effort to extend the ban on new development projects for 93 days failed at City Council Monday when five aldermen backing the extension failed to get consent from their four opposing colleagues to give the measure immediate effect.

The council typically introduces an ordinance at one meeting and then votes to adopt it at the next meeting.

But the ordinance was not introduced at the Nov. 26 council meeting after aldermen deadlocked 4-4 about its merits.

That left the issue still needing both steps of the approval process just one day before the ban was to expire. And under council rules all the aldermen must agree for them to take both approval steps on the same night.

The moratorium was originally imposed to give city consultants, the Plan Commission and the council time to develop an updated plan for the downtown area.

While the consultants issued their report early this fall, lengthy testimony at public hearings before the Plan Commission has delayed further action on the plan.

The practical impact of a moratorium extension is in dispute.

Development opponents who hope the final version of the new plan will dramatically reduce height and density limits fear that new projects inconsistent with the plan will slip through before it can be adopted.

But the draft plan presented by the consultants is broadly consistent with what aldermen have approved under existing zoning in recent years. Any major new project submitted now will require a City Council vote for approval under rules that give aldermen broad discretion about what to approve.

And, given the nationwide slump in the real estate market, it’s unclear whether any major new projects are likely to be proposed in the next several months.

Community Development Director James Wolinski said he’s unaware of any new downtown projects moving forward, other than the proposed tower at 708 Church St. that is already in hearings before the Plan Commission.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said extending the moratorium would "cast a terrible pall over everything that is going on downtown. I just don’t think it’s good to have a community where the sign is up ‘no development is welcome here.’"

She argued it likely will take another six to nine months to finish work on the plan so the 95-day extension would not serve its claimed purpose.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, whose absence from the previous council meeting led to the tie vote, suggested applying the extension only to condo projects and exempting new office development.

But city attorney Ken Cox said he feared that would raise constitutional equal protection concerns. Jean-Baptiste ultimately voted against the extension.

Alderman Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, who opposed the moratorium extension at the previous meeting, switched her position to support it, but said she would not back a further extension beyond March.

The aldermen could consider re-imposing the moratorium at their next meeting on Jan. 14, but it was unclear after Monday’s meeting whether supporters of the extension would have the votes to do that.

 

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