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Downtown zoning up for debate

The city’s plan and preservation commissioners are gearing up for a meeting next month that will invite the public to join in planning the future of downtown Evanston.

They’re hoping the current lull in development activity downtown will give them time to complete a planning process that’s already been underway for the better part of a year.

The Downtown Plan Subcommittee of the Plan Commission met Wednesday with members of the Preservation Commission to coordinate ideas for how to preserve the best of what already exists downtown while not shutting off new development completely.

They hope to present those ideas at a meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Evanston Public Library.

[Update 11/1/06: The subcommittee today rescheduled the Nov. 15 meeting to Dec. 12. The site for the rescheduled meeting has not yet been confirmed.]

Here’s what’s happened this year in the downtown planning process so far:

  • Last spring the Plan Commission panel developed a preliminary map that identifies several sections of downtown for special treatment as “transitional” or “traditional” areas. What that treatment would be hasn’t been defined yet.
  • The Plan Commission group then asked the Preservation Commission to identify possible downtown landmarks. The preservationists found there already are 29 landmark buildings downtown, identified about two dozen additional candidates, and winnowed that list to about 10 top prospects.

    But along the way they concluded that, given the difficulty they’ve had in recent years getting landmark designations approved by the City Council and the amount of work required to document a landmark building, the traditional landmarking process may not be a winning approach.

  • Meanwhile over the summer the city’s planning staff tuned in to a relatively new zoning concept called form-based codes. A California consultant brought in to introduce the concept wowed aldermen and others who attended his presentation.
  • The city hired two consultants to try out the form-based concept on the city’s west side. With those firms now wrapping up their work, the city’s planning staff is about to ask the City Council to adopt the same approach to tackle rezoning the three traditional downtown areas the Plan Commission panel has identified as well as the Fountain Square block at the heart of downtown.

Form-based codes tend to emphasize the size and shape of buildings more than dictating usage, and they often are developed using lots of interactive, hands-on meetings with neighborhood residents.

Plan Commissioner David Galloway said at Wednesday’s meeting “a form-based code would define the building envelope. If we have historically significant buildings in an area, then the new code could require that any development keep the size of the envelope about the same. Therefore the incentive to tear down the historic building would be very low.”

“That’s likely to be far more effective,” he added, “than if you make it a landmark building where it’s still in a zoning category that permits much greater height.”

Preservation Commissioner Jon Pohl said none of the buildings being considered for landmark status downtown are of a quality that would win them a place on the national register and perhaps only about five could reasonably merit local landmark designation.

But Preservation Commissioner Ann Dienner said many of the buildings are still “part of our heritage” and should be preserved if possible.

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