Downtown Plan Committee members this week concluded that Evanstonians asked for the impossible when they demanded both increased retail activity and less traffic congestion during last month’s downtown charrette planning process.
City consultant Tom Smith of Duncan Associates said that in reviewing thousands of comments residents made during the planning process, “most people still think of downtown as a shopping district and their primary concern is maintaining that” and making the shopping experience even better.
But many residents also complained that traffic is too congested downtown or voiced fears new development would make the situation intolerable.
“That’s the central issue,” Mr. Smith said, “People don’t necessarily understand that downtown, to be really successful, has to be a really busy place.”
Plan Commissioner David Galloway said, “People are failing to make the connection and see the sustainable benefits of higher density residential development and transit-oriented development.”
EvMark Executive Director Diane Williams said, “Businesses want traffic congestion. They want feet on the street that will end up in the stores.”
Mr. Smith said that in numerous cities where he’s worked as a consultant, “All the retailers I’ve worked with say, if it’s really congested — that’s what they want.”
Plan Commission Chairman James Woods, noting that some residents had complained that the city’s parking garages are too crowded, added, “If there aren’t cars in those parking garages — that’s a problem.”
Mr. Smith said, “The function of downtown is to be a central place, the hub of activity in the community. It’s where people want to go to find things to do and lots going on.”
“So if you want to have downotwn function that way, it means more density, more activity, more traffic generators,” he added, “The relationship between density and a really successful downtown has to be made more clear.”
He added that downtown residential development, which provides new customers for businesses in the district, have a relatively small impact on traffic congestion.
“Restaurants and bars create far more traffic problems than the residential does,” Mr. Smith said, “The generate a lot more traffic on a square-foot basis.”
And he suggested the different types of traffic generators tend to balance each other out.
“Residential has traffic flows at really predictable times of day. So do bars and restaurants. And they aren’t necessarily all coming together at the same time. When people are leaving their apartments in the morning, there’s not much action at the businesses,” he said.
Ms. Williams said that Evanston’s downtown “is hardly horrible for traffic now. There’s minimal stacking going on.”
Plan Commissioner Larry Widmayer said he believes the new Sherman Plaza garage is working very well and that it usually has plenty of space available.
Mr. Smith said, “People have funny attitudes about the garages. They recognize that it’s good to have garage parking available, but they still want to park right in front of a shop.”
Ms. Williams added that in her own consulting work, “I’ve been in communities where you could fire a cannon down the main drag and not hit anything, and still people tell you that they have parking problems.”
Mr. Smith said the consulting team hopes to post a summary of the charrette process on the city’s web site within the next few days.
The next Downtown Plan Committee meeting is scheduled for 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 11.