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Manager suggests compromise on church zoning

Evanston’s city manager this afternoon suggested scaling back a proposed ordinance designed to put limits on churches in commercial zones.

Evanston’s city manager this afternoon suggested scaling back a proposed ordinance designed to put limits on churches in commercial zones.

The Rev. Mark Dennis of Second Baptist Church and City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz try to find some common ground during the meeting.

At a meeting of church leaders with aldermen, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz suggested that instead of turning churches from uses permitted by right to ones that would require a special use permit from the city in all commercial zones, the change only be imposed on a strip of Howard Street from Ridge Avenue east to the Howard CTA station.

That area has been designated as a tax increment financing district by the city, targeted for new development. And it has been the focus of complaints by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, about what she claims is an influx of storefront churches depressing business activity in the neighborhood.

The unshaded areas on this map show the locations in the 8th Ward where churches now are free to locate by right. Under the ordinance now before the City Council all those by-right areas would be eliminated. The impact on other wards would be similar.

Rainey has pushed for the ordinance that would require City Council approval for churches in any commercial district city-wide. Proposed new churches in residential zones already must go through the special use approval process.

Alderman Ann Rainey.

Rainey suggested that if the ordinance were to be limited to the one strip of Howard Street, then it perhaps should ban new churches entirely.

She said that otherwise a future City Council might decide to add another church to the seven that already exist on one block of Howard, and it has too many already.

The Rev. Karen Mosby-Avery.

But the Rev. Karen Mosby-Avery of Second Baptist Church said the city so far has failed to provide any evidence that churches depress economic activity in a neighborhood.

"You can say you want economic development," Mosby-Avery said, "but for the last 20 years Howard Street has looked the same as it does now."

She said the church leaders would like to participate in the planning process and help determine the vision for the area.

The other hot-spot of concern about storefront churches is on Simpson Street in the 5th Ward.

Alderman Delores Holmes, with Alderman Mark Tendam to her right.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she thinks it’s important for community residents to have input about the location of churches in the neighborhoods. She said two proposals for churches in residential areas of her ward won approval under the special use process in the last five years, although neither of them has yet been built.

Muffy McAuley, an owner of several rental loft buildings along Simpson Street, said businesses on the street have been supplanted by storefront churches — some with congregations from well outside of Evanston.

"I work on Simpson every day," McAuley said, "and the vitality has been drained from that commercial strip. There’s a huge influx of people on Sunday — you can’t find parking anywhere. But the other six days of the week it’s essentially empty."

Jeff Smith and Muffy McAuley.

But Jeff Smith, a northwest Evanston resident who says he once lived near Howard Street, defended the role of storefront churches.

He said they tend to serve migrant and immigrant populations and draw congregants from across the region who may shop in Evanston while they’re here.

Picking up on that theme, the Rev. Mark Dennis of Second Baptist Church, the city’s oldest African-American congregation, said people come to Sunday worship services there from as far away as Milwaukee and Barrington. Then, he said, they stay for lunch or dinner and spend time and money shopping here in Evanston.

The ordinance is scheduled for consideration as a special order of business at next Monday’s City Council meeting.

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