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Downtown plan work begins

Evanston aldermen showed off their contrasting views about downtown development Thursday night at a kickoff meeting for consultants developing a new downtown plan.

Alderman Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward said she was concerned about transitional areas at the edge of downtown.

She said the site approved for 18-story condo building at Emerson Street and Oak Avenue in the 2nd Ward last year is "exactly the wrong place for an 18-story building," and added she doesn’t want to see anything built at 1515 Chicago Ave. in her ward that’s taller than existing buildings on the block.

Aldermen last year rejected an 18-story project proposed for that site.

The new building on Emerson will be "right across the street from small homes, Ald. Wollin said, "It’s a vunerable area, and we haven’t done the transition very well there."

But Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, "It’s not all little single family homes" near the Emerson site. She listed several buildings nearby up to 10 stories tall, some of which were built 30 years or more ago. "It isn’t like there’s a building going up on Emerson that is completely unlike anything else," Ald. Rainey said.

Thursday’s session was a joint meeting of the City Council and the Plan Commission, and Plan Commission Chairman James Woods said downtown housing density is critical to a successful downtown, both for the property tax revenue it generates on its own and for the way it stimulates retail development and sales tax revenue.

"Unless the residents of Evanston want to see their taxes go up enormously, we have to make downtown serve as an economic engine to support the community," Mr. Woods said.

He said he believes that tall buildings can fit in well in Evanston’s downtown, provided that the towers are mostly set back from the street with two-to-five-story structures occupying most of the development lot.

He called for placing more emphasis on regulating the average height of a development, rather than the height of its tallest part.

Mr. Woods, an architect, also called for improved architectural quality in new development.

"We need higher quality detailing, a better sense of perspective and scale," he said.

Ald. Rainey said, "I’ve heard comments lately that tall is ugly. That’s the way its coming off in our community. But a lot of the things that are short in our town and have been built in response to outcries regarding height are ugly and sprawl all over the place."

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said the planning process needs to address expectations of residents about what may be built next door.

"Residents may have certain expectations of what their views will be like, and then other buildings sprout up and block their view. We need to discuss that as openly as possible," he said.

Planning consultant John LaMotte said the form-based coding pilot project that is part of the consultant team’s work could help provide more predictability and make the zoning rules easier for residents to understand.

Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, said the city’s zoning process is designed to permit some unpredictability, "but the way it’s playing out, there is a huge amount of unpredictability." He called for demanding more from developers in public benefits in return for granting development allowances.

But Ald. Jean-Baptiste, noting two pending proposals for towers on the Fountain Square block, said any new development in town "is going to be driven by what developers come and say, ‘OK, I’m willing to build.’ We still have to maintain some degree of flexibility so that the plan does not constrain the dynamism that we’ve come to enjoy and feel is a victory over the last 15 years."

The consultants will hold their first meeting to seek citizen comments about the downtown plan at 7 p.m. on Thursday , June 21, in the Parasol Room at the Civic Center. They’re scheduled to deliver a final report by October. The new plan would replace one the city adopted in 1989.

Related link

Downtown Planning – City of Evanston

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