The Evanston Plan Commission tonight voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the proposed 49-story tower at 708 Church St. to the City Council.

The approval vote included recommendations to the council proposed by Commission Chairman James Woods that:

  • The council form a special committee of aldermen, plan commissioners and city staff to assure that the project meets the highest architectural standards as plans for it are further developed.
  • The design for the base of the tower be made more compatible with the tower itself and with surrounding downtown architecture.
  • At least one level of parking be placed below grade so that a four-story base for the building could include a second story with office and retail uses.
  • Tax increment financing district revenue generated by the project be used to redevelop the fountain square plaza and, if legally possible, to upgrade the appearance of the Fountain Square Building.
  • The developer conduct wind tunnel testing.
  • The existing 708 Church St. building not be torn down before final financing for the new project is secured.

The commissioners were sharply divided on whether development downtown over the last several decades has made the Fountain Square block an appropriate site for high-rise development.

Commissioners who looked to the east and west saw Sherman Plaza, the Chase Bank tower and other high rise developments and said yes.

Commissioners who looked to the north and south claimed to see only the low rise buildings across the street and said no.

The taller Rotary International, Optima Towers and 1800 Sherman buildings a little further north and south escaped comment by either side.

The debate was unusually acrimonious for the Plan Commission, with Commissioner Coleen Burrus claiming the review process “has been a blemish on the integrity of the city” and alleging that the city’s Community Development Department had failed to uphold “its duty to serve the city and residents” by producing a report that “parroted the text and arguments given by the developer.”

She called for an “investigation of the process” — a suggestion that did not draw visible support other commission members.

Commissioner Robin Schuldenfrei, an architectural historian, argued for preservation of all three buildings on the block.

But Commissioner Charles Staley called the 708 Church St. building that would be demolished for the tower “a bad tooth due for extraction.”

The commissioners also argued about the role of public comment in their decision-making, with tower opponents saying they should reject the project because most public comment had been opposed.

When Woods suggested that the commission also needed to evaluate the best interests of the city, including improving its tax base to reduce the financial burden on existing taxpayers, Burrus said, “Using that logic you might just put a price tag on the city.”

The commissioners plan to adopt formal findings regarding the tower project at their next meeting, Dec. 19, which means the tower proposal will likely be on the agenda of the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee at its Jan. 14 meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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