Neighbors Oppose Binge Development (3-7-2007 Letter to Editor)

The following letter from CSNA President Jeff Smith, summarizing development issues arising during the controversy over the proposed mixed-use project at 1700-1722 Central, former site of the Evanston Theatre, was published in the Evanston Roundtable on March 7, 2007.

Some mistakenly feel that north Evanston residents opposed the condominium project on the old Evanston Theatre site mainly because of its size. That oversimplifies. While size matters, and this 130,0000-square-foot project, five times the normal single-use permitted, dwarfs most of Central Street, it's part of the larger problems of misuse and overzoning.

Residents objected to yet another project counter to the intended and desired use of a district. B2 districts are supposed to be for business, but only 11 percent of the space in this development was retail. Our group includes not only homeowners and consumers, but many professionals with extensive experience in real estate and development. We have serious concerns that the project will not create viable retail space. Instead, it's another large condo building sneaking in under the guise of "mixed use."

Three big "mixed-use" buildings like this sprang up on Central Street in recent years. Not one has yet brought the street-level, walk-in, independent retail that everyone agrees is key to the shopping district's vibrancy and vitality. Impractical, expensive ground-floor space gets filled with street-deadening offices. Meanwhile, speculative land values inflate existing merchants' rents. A reassessment is coming up, and I know several of our favorite Central Street stops can't absorb another increase.

Few Evanstonians oppose sustainable development in harmony with neighborhoods. But the City is indulging binge development whose long-term, cumulative effect is not well thought-out. Like many throughout Evanston, we oppose over-zoning, zoning abuse, and overgenerous "allowances" for massive overdevelopment that impacts existing homes and businesses. We believe in preserving neighborhoods for people, not exploiting them for profit. The Council should set stronger limits, and demand more real public benefit.

--Jeff Smith, President
Central Street Neighbors Association