Evanston aldermen Thursday voted to approve a contract with consultants to develop new downtown zoning but rejected a suggestion to impose a moratorium on new construction projects while the consultants do their work.

Evanston aldermen Thursday voted to approve a contract with consultants to develop new downtown zoning but rejected a suggestion to impose a moratorium on new construction projects while the consultants do their work.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, raised the moratorium idea at the special Planning and Development Committee meeting saying she didn’t understand how the planning could be done while developers are submitting new project proposals. “I just have a problem with that, it doesn’t fit for me,” she said.

John LaMotte of The Lakota Group, one of the consultants proposed for the downtown planning project, said, “We’re on a good fast process here, I think this will be a shorter process than having a moratorium.”

Planning Director Dennis Marino said he hoped the consultants could complete their work by the end of October, assuming the aldermen give final approval to the contract at Monday’s council meeting.

The aldermen added a three-week delay to the contract approval process when they held the proposed contract at the April 23 Administration and Public Works Committee meeting and scheduled the special Planning and Development meeting to discuss its provisions. Several aldermen then said they hadn’t gotten enough information from staff about the proposal to be comfortable voting on it.

The aldermen tried out the moratorium concept when they imposed a 120-day halt to new development proposals in a portion of the city’s west side in April 2006 to provide time for a neighborhood planning process there.

That moratorium has since been extended several times and is still in effect more than a year later. While one development site has been exempted from the moratorium, other projects remain on hold while the city fine tunes plans for the area.

Last September aldermen imposed a six-month moratorium on along Central Street from Hartrey Avenue to Ashland Avenue in North Evanston. That moratorium has since been expanded to cover more of the street and extended because the Plan Commission and City Council are still reviewing the rezoning plan consultants developed for the street.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “I will never support a moratorium downtown. I think it would be a terrible mistake.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he isn’t convinced that the downtown planning process is broken.

Assistant City Manager Judy Aiello said that most of the goals of the existing downtown plan, adopted 18 years ago, have been achieved, and the city needs to decide what its goals are for the downtown area for the next decade or two.

“I don’t think anything is broken, but with each new development project we have had the public say to us ‘Where’s the vision; what’s the plan for where we’re going?’” she said.

“Back when we had an 18 percent retail vacancy rate we were happy to take whatever came in the door. When condos were getting financing, we got condos. Now we’re getting rentals. And we’re beginning to have a shortage of office space. We can’t let the market dictate. Though we have to be responsive to the market, we shouldn’t be at the mercy of the market, and without a solid plan we tend to be,” Ms. Aiello said.

She said a good plan and updated zoning should make it easier for developers to bring in projects that will satisfy the community and will much more quickly win approval.

She noted that the new Mather Lifeways buildings spend two-and-a-half years in the approval process. “Time is money to developers, and to the community as well,” she said.

Ald. Jean-Baptiste said, “Market forces are the dynamic the propelled downtown development. To the extent that we begin to implement dogmatic boundaries I think it will stunt growth and development.”

“Calling for a moratorium downtown is presupposing that we’re planning a model that everything will be able to fit into in a nice neat package. I suggest that in reality development will be as dynamic as it has always been. It’s not going to fit neatly into the plan,” he added.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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