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.