Thoughts on Plan Commission Downtown Plan Process

After personally attending most of the Plan Commission meetings on the proposed Downtown Plan – and having read the transcripts or watched the televised version of the meetings I couldn’t attend – I thought it appropriate to offer my comments on the process and perceived status of the plan.

On the whole, the Plan Commission has done an admirable job of picking through the cookie-cutter plan presented by the consulting team and attempted to turn it into a plan that most citizens of Evanston could support. While the Commissioners could not come to a consensus on all parts of the plan, they were able to reach agreement on many issues.

While there was no vote last night, the modified plan will most likely have its final review by the Plan Commission on September 10 for last minute edits; and then wind its way to Planning & Development.

What remains unclear is when the citizens will be able to review a draft copy of the modified plan. In my opinion, citizens and other stakeholders DESERVE a minimum of three weeks to review the “final” Plan Commission document prior to any discussions by Planning & Development. My reasons for recommending a minimum of three weeks are two-fold. First, citizens have not had the benefit of reviewing the same copy the Plan Commissioners have been reviewing all these months (transcripts don’t cut it in this case). Secondly, the Planning & Development committee needs to take the time to read the modified document BEFORE discussing it. To allow any less time between the handoff from Plan Commission to Planning & Development would be a tremendous disservice to the citizens of Evanston.

The following are some observations on decisions made by the Plan Commission in no particular order.

Transitional areas: for the most part, transitional areas were handled with appropriate care. In some cases, the context of historic or character-giving structures dictated the decision to reduce the consultant’s desire for more density. The one area I would disagree with would be the handling of the Emerson corridor between Maple and Ridge where the precedent of some previously approved (and I would say misguided) development was used as an example of what should be developed.

Traditional areas: also handled with care by the PC. Many of the areas that Evanstonians would consider traditional would remain so under the Plan Commission recommendation.

Bonuses: once again, the Commission did an adequate job of beginning to define the types of bonuses that developers could qualify for in specific areas of downtown. It was refreshing to see some of the “fuzzy” bonuses like day care be completely removed from the plan. It should be noted that the bonus section of the proposed plan is only a guideline at this point and will not be truly formed until after the draft plan is approved. However, the intent of most bonuses seemed to be well placed.

Downtown core: a mixed review here. The Commission was split between a “base” or “by-right” height of 12-15 (approx. 137 to 165 feet) stories with a maximum height of 275 feet (just shy of the height of the Chase Bank building which is the tallest in Evanston). Some Commissioners felt that the taller base height offered less incentive for developers to deliver a project that offers public benefits to Evanston.

Central Core: the real question raised by some of the Commissioners is why do we identify this single block as being the one place for extreme height and density? In a move that defined the schizophrenic nature of this “zone,” the Commissioners voted unanimously to propose Fountain Square as “open space” zoning. While this move makes sense, it only further clouds the reasoning for placing very large buildings in the other two-thirds of the block. In my opinion, Chairman Woods made a poor choice in forcing a vote of four options for the block (park, traditional, core, or a modified downtown core up to 350 feet).

While a minority of the Commissioners tried to find a middle ground, some Commissioners would not change their position of an “iconic” tower to define Evanston. In the end, the option that got the most votes (5-3) was to allow the same height as the rest of the core area. This topic will probably continue to be debated and one has to wonder what the recommendation to P&D will say on this topic. While several on the Commission felt that this block should be in the “traditional” zone, the sentiment was that even if it was recommended, it would be overturned by the Council.

One of the most ironic moments of the night was Stu Opdyke’s comments on the Fountain Square block. His biggest concern was saving the Hahn building and he was steadfast in his opinion not to allow two tall buildings to be built in the block, even if it meant a much lower height allowance. However, when the vote came he voted for the option of a base height of 165 feet with a maximum height of approximately 350 feet for the remainder of the block which, in reality, could allow for two massively tall structures to be built casting permanent shadows over Fountain Square and put the Hahn building in peril.

The preceding thoughts are my personal opinions, which are never expressed behind the curtain of anonymity.


Last night I attended the "special" Plan Commission meeting on the Downtown Plan.

I must admit that I have not attended all of the other meetings that have been held on this subject, just some.

The Commissioners basically agreed on the bulk of the plan, but there were still several items that they could not come to agreement on and have directed the city staff to come up with memos outlining the various opinions that can be forwarded to P&D along with the Plan.

The biggest one was whether or not to keep the Fountain Square block as a Central Core district or include it in the Downtown Core district which would limit heights there. This proposal garnered a 5 to 3 vote in favor of keeping it in the Downtown Core and seemed to be somewhat of a compromise between those that wanted to keep it Traditional and those that wanted the Central Core heights.

I am having some reservations concerning the bonus system that is included in the Plan. If you, as a developer, do or provide certain things (underground parking, public spaces, Leed certification, etc ad naseum)you get to build a taller building.

Why are not some of these things REQUIREMENTS. We need to start holding developer's feet to the fire and indicate what is REQUIRED of them if they want to build here. Underground parking should be a REQUIREMENT, not a bonus item! I know; we are trying to be transit oriented and get away from cars, but the reality is that is going to take quite some time to do. It is not something that happens overnight. It will not happen in my remaining lifetime I am quite certain.

I am not sure I understand the bonus for Leed certification. Obviously the developer needs the bonus before he starts building so he can plan his structure accordingly. When is the certification actually granted? After the building is up and an inspection is done? What if the building fails the certification for which the developer was granted bonuses? Do we make him take down the extra height he was granted?

I also do not understand this fascination with heights and why we think we need to have it. I am unaware of anyone who has moved here at any point during my life that wanted to change Evanston to be like Chicago and have tall buildings. Quite the contrary; they wanted to get away from the additional congestion that the heights of Chicago offered.

The Plan Commission will meet again on September 10th to take one final look at their work before sending it off to Planning and Development.

The real test, as with any plan, of this type will come when the actual zoning code is written for this. That is where we get down to the nitty gritty.

As someone once said, "If you zone it, they will build it."