Planner Susan Guderly

City staff and two aldermen tried to answer concerns Tuesday about plans to rezone the former Mayfair rail corridor on Evanston’s west side.

The area, a narrow diagonal slice of the city running from Simpson Street and Green Bay Road to Greenwood Street near Dodge Avenue, includes a mix of declining and abandoned industrial uses. Parts of the right-of-way itself are used for parking and much of the rest is overgrown vacant lots.

A master plan for the area was approved by the City Council lasts year, and zoning changes to implement the plan are scheduled for discussion by the Planning and Development Committee next Monday.

The rezoning would permit construction of new housing — mostly townhouses, with a few apartment buildings and mixed-use retail and residential buildings,

Top: City planner Susan Guderly reviews the multi-year process used to develop the plan. Above: Dempster Auto Rebuilders’ owner Dick Peach (center), whose business is near the old rail line, was among the people at the meeting.

It also seeks to permit limited expansion of certain existing industrial uses, whose owners have said they want to stay in the city, while making back-up plans for an eventual transition of those properties to residential use.

Bennett Johnson, publisher of the Evanston Sentinel, said the old freight rail line ran run through the traditional center of Evanston’s black community. He said some residents see plans for new housing as likely to bring in higher-income new residents, and some long time residents see it becoming “an enemy fort kind of thing.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, responded that he lives across from the North Shore Channel, and when he and other neighbors tried to improve the canal park, to add benches and a nice gazebo, some neighbors didn’t want the improvements because they feared it wold attract “negative elements.”

“When people come back to Evanston,” Jean-Baptiste said, “They’re amazed to see that we’re moving forward in most neighborhoods, but when they look on the west side, they wonder why we are so stagnant.”

“The railroad berm, that still exists,” Jean-Baptiste said, “We have parents calling and complaining about high school kids cutting through the area, and using it to get high, and robbing each other there.”

“The people say, ‘Do something about it,’” Jean-Baptiste said, and the plan is an effort to address that and many other issues.

“The city is not trying to impose new housing to drive people out of the west side of town,” he said.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said, “The whole idea is to connect neighborhoods on the east and west side.” She said the walkway and bike path proposed in the plan is designed to connect people.

Johnson said, “Obviously change is going to happen. I’m not arguing against it.”

“Maybe we need more rentals, maybe we need increased height to accommodate more density. We need to make sure it doesn’t become a white citadel in the black community,” he added.

The question of density has split opponents of the plan — with some calling for increased density to make new housing more affordable to low and moderate income residents — and others objecting to anything that wouldn’t replicate the generally modest single family homes just west of the old tracks.

City Planning Director Dennis Marino said the city has programs to provide financial assistance for moderate income owners seeking to fix up their homes and is working with various agencies to try to prevent foreclosures in the community.

But Jean-Baptiste said the city doesn’t have the power to legislate price points for new housing, because those are driven by market forces beyond the power of the city to control.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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