Planning v. Development

The following was originally prepared for presentation to the Planning & Development Committee on Mon., Mar. 17, with respect to the proposed 49-story tower at 708 Church St. (click pic at right to see larger image), which most agree would be the biggest potential change to our downtown in years.

Because of time limits, only part was presented. I don't think any other speaker covered the interplay of the zoning, downtown zoning, downtown planned development, and special use site development allowance sections of our code, nor the sociological concerns, and so at risk of overestimating its importance, I'm posting this text as my first blog entry on this website.

Why We Plan
This Council Committee is considering the single most dramatic piece of spot zoning in most of our experience. The name of this committee is Planning & Development, and the question it confronts tonight is this: Will development in Evanston result from planning? Or will planning in downtown Evanston continue to be an afterthought to development?

I am a proponent of planning because, to me, Evanston is not just an aggregation of parcels of land available on the open market. In any given year, and even a given decade, most Evanstonians do not sell, do not buy, do not move.

We live here.

We are a community.

A community of any size has a right if not duty to determine its own destiny. That destiny is best shaped, not by ad hoc serial decisions on spot transactions, but by community consensus and collective planning.

Real estate transactions are action. They are exciting and they are lucrative. They fill many pages in print media and they pay for banner ads on online media. But because they are news they are not representative of daily lives and values that are not news. The focus on building, selling, and buying tends to obscure the interests and silence the voices of those who live with the consequences of the buying, the selling, and the building.

It is those voices you now hear, who are concerned with the direction of Evanston. It is for those who live here, quietly, and those who will follow, that we plan, rather than yield to temptation or the excitement of the moment.

Legal Standards Should Bar Approval of Tower Project

The ordinance changes before this committee explode planning.

Our existing ordinance on Planned Developments in the downtown states (my emphases added): "the Plan Commission shall not recommend approval of, nor shall the City Council adopt a planned development in the downtown districts unless they shall determine, based on written findings of fact, that the planned development adheres to" certain standards.

General Condition 1 of those standards states: "Each planned development shall be compatible with surrounding development and not be of such a nature in height, bulk or scale as to exercise any influence contrary to the purpose and intent of the Zoning Ordinance." That zoning ordinance, in its own words, is for "Preventing the overcrowding of land by regulating and limiting the height and bulk of buildings," for "Regulating and limiting the intensity of the use of lot areas," for "Establishing standards to which buildings or structures shall conform," and for "Prohibiting uses, buildings, or structures that are incompatible with the character of established zoning districts."

General Condition 3 of the downtown planned development standards requires that "Each planned development shall be compatible with and implement," among other things, our Comprehensive General Plan and our Zoning Ordinance… particularly in terms of …"(b) land use intensity, (i) Essential character of the downtown district, and (j) neighborhood planning"

There is also a requirement of a demographic study of what population is possible and practical for the neighborhood; that is, where do we want to end up? If you don't have a destination, you aren't planning, you're winging it.

Section C of our law limits what height increases the City Council may grant. Even if you find that a planned development meets the above conditions, the maximum increase over existing height that can be granted is 85' in D3 plus an additional 40' for parking structure.

The infamous section 6-3-6-6 of the Code allows this Council by a 2/3 vote to allow SDAs in excess of the maximums allowed for a district upon certain showing of necessity. But §6-3-6-6 does not convey any authority to grant such an allowance in the absence of the threshold findings of compatibility, especially as to height, bulk, and scale. §6-3-6-6 is permissive, but the previous sections quoted are mandatory. And Subsection I of §6-3-5-10: Standards For Special Uses, says that a special use must comply with all other applicable regulations of the district in which it is located, and with other applicable ordinances.

I urge that to an applicant's request for changing our law, there be applied some measure of proportionality: the greater the allowance sought, the greater must be the benefit to the community, and the stricter the application of intent of underlying zoning and planning.

What do we see here?

  • A request for more than double the maximum number of dwelling units allowed.
  • a request for height that is over 400% maximum allowable height.
  • a request for 350% of the allowable floor area ratio (4.5 -> 15.77)
  • a request to ignore, for over 90% of the structure, the ziggurat setbacks that §6-11-1-4 establishes
  • a request for relief from 162 required off-street parking spaces

Has the applicant satisfied the burden that should be placed on someone seeking not just to amend our map, but to explode it? The question is not whether we simply like the project, as opposed to disliking it, or whether we think it's a "good" project. For something so disruptive to our planning, that so disregards our zoning, that by itself will do more to recast our downtown than years of collective discussion and foresight, the question is, and must be, has the applicant demonstrated that this project is so magnificent, so breathtaking, so brilliant, and so farsighted that it deserves such an enormous deviation from virtually every existing limit on what can and should be built on this spot?

By any measure, it has not.

Downtown "Character" Matters

Among the intents and purposes of the zoning ordinance is to preserve the character of the neighborhood, including the downtown district, and the morals of the City. This raises questions.

In what was once called the City of Homes, does it well represent us to erect a tower of units most could never afford, living behind doors upon which we cannot knock?

In what was once called the City of Churches, does it well represent us to erect an edifice that at its base will be a celebration of materialism and at its apex a monument to social stratification?

In a town where we claim to cherish, celebrate, and nurture diversity, and where affordability is a crisis, do we want to accelerate the transformation of our downtown to a place where New Trier kids will want to come to shop, but where Evanston kids can't afford to, and perhaps don't even feel welcome?

In what we want to be the most livable city in the United States, in a time of impending calamity for our environment, shouldn't any building that signifies and defines that city be carbon-neutral, a recycler of rainwater and wastewater, characterized not by sheer vertical glass walls but by passive solar fenestration and shading, and powered by renewable energy?

The literature of skyscrapers and the Internet are each abundant with visions of the skyscrapers of the future. Regardless of opinions on aesthetics, this project represents little change from the practices of the past, which have driven us, as a society, to the brink of disaster.

Denial Now Is the Council Tool to Produce a Better Building

I do not believe this project can be negotiated at this point in the procedure. I agree with those legal minds who looked at this project and said, considering our existing zoning, there was no reasonable expectation that it could be built.

Factors that make property desirable will still be here tomorrow. The University, the lake, the rail lines are not going away. The only factor making this a rush is the window of opportunity to get this Council to approve what our law seemingly does not allow, before we change our downtown planning and zoning to no longer allow such temptation.

If it makes sense to build here, there will be another proposal. There will come a time when another proposal for a tallest building in Evanston is before this City. It may be more affordable. It may be greener. It may be from these same developers, or from others. I may support it. And it may be approved. But only if you say no to spot zoning that explodes planning can you guarantee that any such proposal will reflect our best thinking, our best intentions, and our best values.

Jeff Smith
March 17, 2008