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West side plan wins endorsement

The Evanston Plan Commission Wednesday unanimously approved west side plan documents prepared by two consulting firms despite concerns about housing costs, building design and park land.

The vote sends the overall plan to the City Council's Planning and Development Committee for further review, while the detail work of reviewing zoning changes will fall to the Plan Commission's Zoning Committee.

Commissioner Larry Widmayer, attending his last meeting as a full voting member of the commission after two terms on the panel, said he's concerned about the impact of city requirements for new streets and affordable housing on the cost of the new homes.

"We have a target price point in the plan for townhouses of between $350,000 and $400,000," Mr. Widmayer said. "If you add the cost of being able to sell one unit in ten for $200,000, then the market-rate units are $425,000."

"If the developer has to pay the cost of streets, they quite quickly become $500,000 units," he added, "and that dramatically changes the target buyer."

Planning Director Dennis Marino said the city does want to carry out redevelopment of the old industrial area in a way that makes it economically feasible, but has not made a formal committment to pay for the cost of new streets.

Commissioner Albert Hunter, said neighbors who participated in the planning process had very strongly favored establishing a traditional street grid in the area.

Mr. Hunter, who was succeeded as commission chairman by James Woods at the meeting, added he feared the street-grid goal might be lost as individual parcels are developed.

But Mr. Marino said the plan's recommendations are intended to see that that problem doesn't occur.

Commissioner David Doetsch said he thought town homes proposed in the plan needed bigger front porches to encourage people to sit out and talk to their neighbors, as a way of enhancing security by putting more "eyes on the street."

But Leslie Oberholtzer of Farr Associates said the consultants wanted to be careful not to "be the architects" for the area and "allow some freedom and breadth" for the designs.

She said the plans call for many traditional neighborhood features — including eliminating front driveways by having auto access off rear alleys, requiring that front entrances face the street rather than an interior side yard and requiring a specified percentage of glass on the street-facing facades so people will be able to look out their windows at what's going on in the neighborhood.

She said the area's existing homes have a mix of small stoops and full porches and that the planners would have further discussion with a focus group of residents about design details before recommending detailed zoning rules.

The plans cover the area along the former Mayfair rail corridor from Simpson Street south to Lake Street.

Commissioner Hunter said he hoped the desire of residents at the south end of that area to have it preserved as an open, natural space can be met.

"We're dealing with the French versus the English conception of nature here," Mr. Hunter said, "The French want a finely manicured park. The English want a wild garden. If all this area was leveled and flattened with an eight-foot wide asphalt path, it could be boring compared to the environment that's there now."

Commissioner David Galloway said he'd also encourage development of that area as "wild, or informal, parkland."

Mr. Marino said the land in question is not city-owned, but it "has no way to go in terms of development" and the plan does call for it to be park space.

He said city planning staff members have met with parks and recreation department officials who hope to see more parkland in the area, but that those goals are constrained the reality that reserving more land for parks would increase development costs — and the price of the new homes.

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