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.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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3 Comments

  1. Where is all this traffic congestion I keep hearing about?
    I’m just not seeing it. The biggest traffic “problem” I see in downtown Evanston is on weekend evenings directly around the movie theater, or on Sherman between Clark and Church, where traffic backs up because people are either sitting in their cars waiting for a space to open up (and blocking a lane of traffic), or driving 2 miles per hour while weaving from one lane to the next, searching for a non-existent meter parking space. If people drove on the streets, instead of treating them like parking lots, and parked in one of the conveniently located and very cheap city garages, everything would work just fine on those rare occasions where traffic actually does back up.
    If you want to get around in the downtown area of any city, your best bet is to park your car and walk. I don’t see what the problem is, or why people expect Evanston to be any different.
    It also seems to me that people just complain about traffic and parking because they simply need another reason to oppose any new development.

  2. More on Traffic
    I think that complaints about traffic need to be backed up with numbers. I have been part of neighbor oppositions to various development proposals, and if traffic were thought an issue we either had to count cars ourselves, show how a formal traffic report was incomplete, or do something with measurement of actual objects on the street. It is too easy, and therefore perfectly ignorable, for the public to simply say “too much traffic it seems to us” and not really know one way or the other if there is too much or not.

  3. The downtown charade
    It appears that the City — we — have poured another pile of money down the drain to come up with a preferred solution that was preordained by the “in the pipeline” nonsense. The Council has apparently cut a deal with the developers, which is probably why they are stalling with release of the closed door executive session to the State Attorney General concerning the allegation of an improper meeting.

    Consider those thousands of hours of citizens’ time wasted because the desired outcome was to have towering condos, in a declining market, thrust through the downtown, violating existing ordinances and form-based design principles. Also consider the money to the consultants a waste, because when the citizen preference ran contrary to desire of the development syndrome Council, the findings went tilt.

    Time for a new Council.

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