Despite complaints from residents that it gives too much away to developers, Evanston aldermen and plan commissioners say they’re generally happy with the city’s mandatory planned development process for large construction projects.

Community Development Director James Wolinski said the process “gives the City Council ultimate control over development in the community, and the right to request public benefits from developers.”

“But to a certain point,” he added, “it undermines the underlying zoning and creates a process that leads many people to voice concerns about delays.”

Mr. Wolinski, at a joint meeting Wednesday night of the aldermen, the Plan Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals, presented a chart showing that 31 projects, including five revised proposals, have started the mandatory planned development process since it was adopted in 2002.

Three were withdrawn by developers before a Plan Commission vote. Of the remaining 28, the Plan Commission approved 19, rejected eight and forwarded one to the aldermen without a recommendation because of a tie vote.

The aldermen approved all the projects the Plan Commission approved and the tie.

Of the eight projects the commission rejected, the aldermen approved three, denied three and sent two back to the commission for new hearings on a developer’s revised proposal. Both those revised projects were ultimately approved.

Although the vast majority of projects ultimately win approval, they often are significantly modified by developers during the approval process to address concerns raised by neighbors, the planners and aldermen.

Plan Commissioner Larry Widmayer said developers tend ask for a little more when they propose a planned development, on the assumption there’s going to be some negotiation.

“I think they push the envelope a bit. In some cases we’ve come back and said ‘too far,’ and they’ve had to cut it down,” Mr. Widmayer said. In other instances, he added, the benefits to the city from the project justify the allowances requested.

“Every community I know of that has a significant amount of development going on has a planned development process, and everybody takes advantage of it to ask for more,” Plan Commission Chairman James Woods said.

Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, said the mandatory planned development concept was adopted as an alternative to binding appearance review — after city officials failed to reach consensus on what the appearance rules should be.

The city recently adopted non-binding design guidelines and Plan Commissioner David Galloway said he believes they have helped produce better projects in the city.

Carolyn Brzezinski, who chairs the city’s Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee said she’s looked at other communities that have binding appearance review and doesn’t see better outcomes there.

“We’re encouraging a wide range of thinking architecturally,” Ms Brzezinski said, “That’s so much more important than trying to pigeonhole designers into very strict guidelines. I think we’ve done a good job of allowing lots of different things to happen.”

“I hope we never get to the point of being judges of color — of people’s houses or building. Like it or not, I think that freedom is an important part of Evanston.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the city needs “better definitions of what we view as a public benefit.”

“I don’t think extra tax revenue should be viewed as a public benefit,” Ald. Wynne said. “If that’s all we wanted we could just up zone the entire city. Yet they spend giant chunks of time telling us about the taxes.”

There was general consensus at the meeting that a recent change in state rules to let the Plan Commission and aldermen follow more streamlined procedures in their hearings on planned developments should eliminate much of the delay that has plagued the process.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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