Odd Vote Keeps "Tower" Alive Despite Lack of Support

An unexpected and seemingly preplanned parliamentary maneuver last night at the May 7 City Council Planning & Development Committee special meeting on the 708 Church St. "Tower" project was the key scene-change in an evening of drama and mystery that kept the project "on the table" even after it appeared the required zoning changes lacked necessary aldermanic support, and despite seeming consensus acknowledgment that the community is opposed.

Because the project is a "planned development" requiring a "special use" in downtown, passing the necessary zoning map and text amendment requires a supermajority of 6 Council votes. However, the Committee first makes a "recommendation" to the Council. Ald. Wynne opened by moving to reject the application. Ensuing discussion indicated that Alds. Hansen, Tisdahl, and Bernstein would join Wynne and vote "no." Had that vote occurred, and had alderman voted as they stated, the Tower would have had at most 5 votes, and possibly only 4 (Ald. Holmes, chairing the session, did not publicly commit, but informed sources stated that she too was a "no"). The matter would be, for now, closed.

During the discussion, Ald. Bernstein apologized to the developers for not returning phone calls, and reiterated that he had "no problem" with the building's height, but stated, in well-received remarks, that he would vote "no" because a vote otherwise would damage the "spirit of the community." While calling the developers "arrogant," he indicated he was still willing to discuss the project with them. Ald. Jean-Baptiste subsequently suggested that to avoid "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" the committee should "table and talk frankly with the developers about what we want" in hopes of stimulating a "radical response."

After that preview, Ald. Moran moved to table Ald. Wynne's motion until after completion of the Downtown Plan, Ald. Rainey seconded, and the motion passed 5-4, with Ald. Bernstein switching sides to join the Tower's perceived supporters. The effect of that vote was to stop discussion, and to keep the matter on P&D agendas as a tabled matter, and the Committee then adjourned.

While Ald. Holmes had not expressed in Council or Committee session her views on the merits of the project, she had previously expressed her desire (which the community shares) to reach closure on this subject, as the City has much more business to discuss. Her "no" vote on the motion to table was at least consistent.

The tabling maneuver seemed preconceived rather than impromptu only because the City attorney instantly had at hand a "researched" opinion on an apparent ambiguity in the Committee rules as to which motion had priority, Ald. Moran's motion to table or Ald. Wynne's substantive motion already on the floor. The assistant corporation counsel said that the rules were silent, and that it was up to the Chair. This seemed to take Ald. Holmes by surprise, i.e., if this was orchestrated, she had not been given a copy of the sheet music. It reminded observers of the way the Mayor seemed sandbagged by the legal technicalities that prevented her budget statement from being considered several weeks ago.

It's hard to see how this result, sending a $100M project into purgatory, could make anyone very happy. On its face, it was a virtual invitation to the development team to negotiate in private with one or more aldermen. Eb Moran's motion and vote were consistent with his support for the project, which he explained in fiscal, "smart growth," and public-benefits terms, but his motion was an inappropriate dilatory use of a motion to table, and served to undermine the supermajority requirement.

Steve Bernstein's vote on the motion to table, the swing vote, baffled many in the room, as the result seemed inconsistent not only with his speech about why he intended to vote no, but with his acknowledgment that the closed-meeting origins of the project had created public distrust.

Many wondered, is there no learning curve here? It's not just the substantive aspects of the project, but the fact that it (like so many others) seemed to have arisen behind closed doors rather than being brought to the public, that has outraged so many Evanstonians. Why, given that dynamic, would it make sense to refine the deal by phone calls between developers and aldermen?

Moreover, the Plan Commission, which has been ignored in the past by the Council, had been looking to the Council vote on the Tower before they moved forward on the Downtown Plan that seemed tailored to the Tower proposal (although Commission chair James Woods appeared and spoke in favor of the project). For the Council to lateral and defer to the Plan Commission creates a decisonmaking circularity. One alderman called the Downtown Plan the "600-lb. gorilla in the room," but in the Commission, the Tower is the big ape lurking. After the committee vote, three Plan Commission members bolted from the room.

It seems like Evanston government more and more consists of one "surprise" after another being sprung on the public. Maybe the most accurate "icon" of the town would be one that is underground, or sheathed not in shiny glass, but in a cloak of invisibility.


I would like to add that since this already infamous meeting, several skyscraper opponents have written to Alderman Moran to express outrage at what he did. His responses have been insulting and pompous. By telling those of us who are opposed to the skyscraper that our arguments are baseless and emotional (he used stronger terms), Moran is also insulting his fellow aldermen, namely Wynne, Hansen, Holmes, Tishdal, and Bernstein, all of whom said that there were major problems associated with the project and that it did not fit with Evanston's character. At the meeting, Moran basically said that we needed the skyscraper because we were in a financial crisis and asked the audience (almost all opponents of the project) what they would do if they were in his shoes. Well, since I couldn't answer him then, I will answer now. The first thing I would do is to find out who is responsible for making the poor economic decisions that led to the crisis and hold those individuals responsible. Then I would try and find ways to exit the crisis without having to dramatically alter the charm and appeal of Evanston.

Peter Sanchez