Aldermen reject downtown building moratorium

Part of the cover of the 2009 downtown plan

Evanston aldermen Monday rejected calls from a handful of tall building opponents to impose a moratorium on new development downtown.

The moratorium demands came at a lightly attended special City Council meeting at which most aldermen also indicated they had no appetite to either implement zoning changes called for in the 2009 Downtown Plan or to begin the lengthy and expensive process of developing a new plan for the area.

A lot of empty seats at Monday's council meeting.

Kiera Kelly and Carl Klein were among those calling for the moratorium. They noted that the city had imposed one in 2007 as the city was developing the current downtown plan.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said that at that point the real estate market had just collapsed. "I think a lot of developers might have appreciated the time out then, so I had no problem voting for a moratorium," Rainey said. "I would have an enormous problem now voting for a moratorium. I think it would be a financially horrible thing to do."

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he was elected in 2009, shortly after the plan was adopted.  He said the plan had some "extreme and very obvious incorrect assumptions."

"It was predicated on strong ongoing residential development -- more condos" and on 35,000 square feet of additional commercial space for what was then planned to be a downtown Trader Joe's at 1890 Maple and the 708 Church tower building that was never constructed.

"A lot of people say we should be following the plan," Wilson said. "But if we were to do that we'd need to catch up on the 200 units of housing that the plan anticipated would be constructed in Evanston every year -- we should be scrambling to add units."

Wilson said he had no interest in tearing down the mostly two-story area west of the tracks on Davis. But the plan, combined with the inclusionary housing ordinace would permit eight story buildings there. And it calls for buildings up to 35 stories tall in the central core. "Which entire blocks of existing buildings are we going to tear down to follow this plan?" Wilson asked.

He said most recent proposed developments have involve underutilized or empty spaces. "To me," Wilson said, "it makes sense to look at the empty space, instead of tearing down and pushing out other businesses."

"This plan was well-intended but it stopped making sense," He added. "Work on it started in 2006, but by the time it was adopted, the reality had changed."

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who has frequently opposed proposed tall buildings, said the planned development process which opponents attack as a giveaway to developers, gives the city a way to get better designed projects -- something she said she'd achieved with the planned office building on the library parking lot.

"I'm not ready to scrap the planned development process," Fiske said, "I think if we did, you guys would be here and object to it."

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, who's also frequently opposed tall building plans, said, "The world turned upside down with the great recession. And the retail market now is turning upside down again."

"I understand 10 years later, if we hadn't had the great recession, the plan might make some sense to some people.

Wynne said, "Piecemeal development is terrible -- we shouldn't be doing individual negotations over every property."

But planned developments, she said, "are the only way in which we could have some say over the quality of the building "

"We had too man yreally cheap buildings built in the late 1990s in Evanston," Wynne said, before the planned development process was adopted.

She suggested plans might need to be revisited much more frequently in the past because retail is changing so rapidly and people's housing patterns are changing so rapidly.

Eleanor Revelle.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said, "I don't think any of us are totally happy with the way the zones are designated in the plan."

"But," she added, "the plan has a lot of really good planning concepts that will serve us well as we evaluate planned developments coming to us."

She said she believes building taller in the downtown core is good planning policy, good environmental policy that reduces pollution and good economic policy because it provides support for the downtown business and retail community.

"Height bonuses are OK in the core area -- but needs to be granted in exchange for public benefits," Revelle said.

But she also said there's a need to balance old and new -- so that coming to Evanston is something other than going out to Old Orchard.

She suggested the plan has too many different zones -- but that she likes its call for lower heights in areas that transition to low-density residential areas.

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