An Analysis of the Downtown Plan

Some Evanston citizens asked me in the fall to provide a synopsis of the 108-page Downtown Evanston Plan now working its way through the Plan Commission. Since it's going to get a lot closer to reality in the next few months, and we now have a better website, I'm publishing an updated version here. It's a long post but closer to 7 pages, not 108.

The Plan, downloadable in segments by clicking here is somewhat technical, backloads its most critical provisions, and along the way may bog the reader down in lots of pictures and graphs. Some data and assertions required research; others required doing math. The following is a work in progress, originally written Nov., 2007. I'll probably continue to revise as we all review.

CONCLUSION: The Oct. 17, 2007 draft of the Downtown Evanston Plan is a prescription for a lot of downtown growth, and, in particular a lot more high-rise buildings (a 200-unit skyscraper each year for the next 10). It is a schizophrenic document: while presented as a means to guide growth (and actually downzoning in some spots), its zoning recommendations, if followed, are equivalent to granting an immediate, large site allowance of density and mass to much of downtown, far beyond that currently permitted, without any commensurate reciprocal public benefit. The Plan does freeze the base zoning height of the three most "traditional" areas in downtown, but it allows even those to be exceeded through "bonuses." Although the bonus structure recommended could bring better-defined public benefits than we've seen under the current unfettered planned development process, the additional "bonus" grants of height and mass would densify downtown Evanston much further still than in the past decade.

There is, however, much to like in the Plan. The move toward a form-based code is creative and will ban further sheer vertical walls; the elimination of site development allowances, which have been abused, would be welcome; the additions to public space are pleasing, and few can argue with buildings that are more sustainable. The Plan draws heavily on so-called "smart growth" concepts which offer many progressive ideas, albeit still a form of growth. I would urge anyone trying to understand this Plan to read some basic information on Smart Growth (mentioned but not described in the Plan) and its cousin, New Urbanism. Representative summaries of both concepts can be found at the Online Transport Demand Management Encyclopedia:
Smart Growth
New Urbanism

However, because of its overall tilt toward high-rise development, the Plan does not wholly integrate those ideas, and the upzoning arguably undermines them. Even "smart growth" densifies, and under the Plan, "growth" would be certain, but the "smart," less certain. Without much discussion, the Plan also quietly (sneakily?) recommends moving the Civic Center downtown.

The Plan would benefit from deeper sociological analysis. By focusing so much on form, and trying to rationalize more bigger buildings, it fails to assure a mix of uses, and is somewhat clinically detached from the soul of the town and what Evanstonians feel makes Evanston special.

ANALYSIS: Section 1 starts with a somewhat selective account of the status quo and how Evanston got here. Although many Evanstonians are dismayed with some development trends in downtown, that is suppressed here; §1 indicates little citizen dissatisfaction, only developers apparently upset with having their projects modified or denied. All that residents apparently want is more "certainty" (p.2). Section 1 congratulates everybody who made downtown what it is now.

The #1 "Major Recommendation" of the Plan is that city development policies be revised "to protect the downtown’s compact, walkable, mixed-use, and transit-oriented character," and the #2 "Major Recommendation" is that form-based code be used to "maintain the human scale and attractiveness of downtown's traditional areas." These stated goals, and their extreme forward placement, are designed to reassure residents and win broad acceptance for the Plan.

Few, too, will quarrel with the remaining six "Major Recommendations," other than the underlying assumption of continued growth. However, the zoning change recommendations conflict somewhat with the top two major recommendations.

Section 2, "Downtown Context," like §1, claims downtown Evanston "has it all" (begging the question as to why we then need more concrete, steel, bodies, and cars). The glowing report reads like a realtor's brochure. It does not mention the lack of central place for public assembly, the complete absence of live theatre, a paucity of live music, no dancing, little indoor recreation, no art museum, low-cost food venues getting replaced by pricy ones, and that if you run out of gas, you are marooned.

The description of the physical landscape and infrastructure, as solid but with some trouble spots, is more balanced, and is fair and accurate.

The contextual history is uneven. Section 2, like the rest of the Plan, adopts what has become an Official Version, in which "shopping centers" are the only historical negative impact mentioned. What is ignored? The history of Evanston as "dry" (no liquor sales); the building of the Edens; urban racial tension of the '60s and '70s; high interest rates; the S&L crisis; the "empty-nesting" of Evanston in the 80s; the general exodus of corporations from Cook County and into the collar counties nearer CEOs' homes; and the bite that catalog and then online sales took into retail. More recently, the Plan seems unaware of the restaurants, coffeehouses, and knowledge-worker influx that sparked a downtown "comeback" even before the Arthur Hill development kicked it into high gear. It almost completely ignores the Research Park and the impact of NU's growth on downtown.

Section 2 offers a useful roadmap to previous planning efforts, but somewhat shades predecessor efforts as being more pro-development than those documents really were. Example: the statement that the 2004 Downtown Visioning "updated" the 2000 Comprehensive General Plan's main goal for downtown by terming it a "mixed-use central business district that is attractive, convenient, livable, accessible, and economically vibrant." This suggests a continuing trend toward more mixed use. In fact, the 2000 Plan already stated that goal, almost identically. The real "update" in 2004 was to add "livable" and "accessible" – arguably reflecting concerns that downtown had issues there. "Mixed-use residential" in the 2004 Visioning was only one of a list of priorities including more retail space, more hotel space, more entertainment, protection of landmarks, and promotion of Evanston as a tourist destination. It was not the top priority.

Section 3 is an account of the public participation process. The Plan notes the repeated concerns about scale and height and ugly architecture (p. 16); yet all the draft goals remained unchanged (p. 17). Recent newcomers to Evanston, along with those with the most to gain from development (property owners, developers, and the design community) apparently had the most input into the process; the plan doesn't mention any focus groups for non-downtown neighborhood residents, downtown workers, shoppers, or commuters. The words "African-American," "minority," "racial," "diversity" (in a demographic context), and "gentrification" do not appear in this section (nor anywhere else in the 10/17 Plan draft). But the recognition and inclusion of students as a market force is commendable.

Section 4: Real Estate Market. The RE market study concludes that downtown should have more. More of everything. More retail, more residential, more office. Build the equivalent of Optima Views every single year for the next 10 years. "Downtown can handle it."

This section has many useful facts and is worth reading carefully. Contrary to the myth of a boom, it reveals little total downtown business growth over the past 17 years, but a large shift, from general merchandise stores to restaurants. It optimistically forecasts a solid residential growth rate and completely ignores collapse in the residential real estate market over the 18 months prior to publication, the growing credit crisis, and Evanston's current record amount of real property inventory. Apparently the Goodman firm considers Evanston immune from national, Midwest, and regional trends. Indeed, the lake and the two transit lines should help buffer Evanston from a national housing recession. However, the failure to address possible negatives is a conspicuous omission.

The market analysis for downtown likewise has intriguing but incomplete data: it says that Leading Edge Baby Boomers 55-64 are a growing cohort and represent 21% of downtown newcomers – but who are the other 79%, and what are they likely to do? It also forecasts demand growth based on 1/3 of downtown buyers relocating from within Evanston. That assumes that those relocaters can sell their existing homes, an increasingly uncertain prospect for numerous reasons (including the finances of Trailing Edge Baby Boomers), and ignores the future tax increase impact.

The facts stated, as well as some not stated (including the high number of Evanstonians who work in Evanston or from home-based businesses), suggest that downtown needs more affordable office space, and Section 4 endorses that.

The marketing study forecasts additional tax benefits from additional residential development and should be read in conjunction with Section 5, Infrastructure. As with most City planning documents, there are, apparently, no costs whatsoever associated with new residents, only revenues. Evanston is the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Never mind those murmured references to "upgrading" the infrastructure and "monitoring" the 30" water main.

The section on parking is worth reading, as it correctly demonstrates that there is already, overall, ample parking in downtown.

The meat and potatoes of the Plan are in the next 3 sections.

The Plan in §6, Master Plan, departs from its rhetoric and intriguing landscapes and starts to say what it will actually do. Pages 37-61, "Objectives and Strategies," are critical. It's important to get these right because they become the basis for further zoning discussion. If there is seeming consensus on the "objectives and strategies," then the staff and Commission, and ultimately the Council, may say they are "bound" to follow the Plan they have adopted, which makes the zoning discussions more contentious. The Plan states Six Objectives, each with strategies. Most are mom-and-apple pie things that everyone will applaud. However, once the zoning changes are added in, the net result is far more height and mass than under existing zoning.

The first two Objectives seem designed to reflect the top 2 "goals" of the plan, protecting the downtown’s character and maintaining the human scale and attractiveness of downtown's traditional areas. Yet the first Objective, which, says that we should leverage downtown's potential as a mixed-use pedestrian and transit-oriented center near NU, is titled 1. Optimize Economic Development.

What the Plan urges here is form-based code, but seems to suggest that we develop Sherman south of Davis, Davis east of Orrington, and Orrington north of Davis – the traditional areas – by making them "two-sided commercial streets" with open storefronts. Most folks would say they already are. The logic of "developing" these areas to "protect" and "maintain" them is foggy.

Note: while the Plan is generally correct as to adequate parking, the three street sections identified are the exception and are typically very difficult places to park.

The second Objective, 2."Improve Quality of Physical Environment" urges we "raise the bar" of design to "maintain human scale." This is another nod to the first two goals. Unfortunately, the "strategies" are primarily a feel-good wish list, very squishy, with few concrete steps to take except for "targeted capital improvements." The text here again urges form-based code without saying how that will maintain a human scale.

No. 3 is Sustainable Green Buildings, which is all good, except it is mainly hortatory. Many, as I do, think all new construction should be "green." Objective 4 urges a "Strong Multi-Modal Transportation System" but, similarly, the main thing concrete is concrete, mainly for cars; this does tie in to developers' desires for lower parking requirements. Objective 5 urges we "Enhance Arts & Culture" but, again, it's purely wish list rhetoric except for public art. Under this section, it does say we should relocate the Civic Center downtown (p. 40). There is little explanation here of how this fits in other than the phrase "civic and cultural opportunities"; apparently they needed somewhere to put it; text earlier argues that having the City staff downtown will help existing restaurateurs and retailers. This is probably correct. How that would impact staff productivity is a different question.

Finally, this section urges 6. "Predictable and Sensible" Development Controls. This streamlines development, reduces the number of zoning districts, apparently largely does away with use-based zoning, and lets what's been built recently dictate what will be built next. It speaks as if public benefits will be exacted for "bonuses" but omits the critical fact that the Plan recommends massive increases in base zoning height throughout large portions of downtown, i.e., an "instant bonus" for free. All the "traditional" areas could become 5 stories with bonuses. This is a prescription for making Evanston look more like downtown Oak Park.

Following the "Objectives" are a number of helpful illustrations of downtown appearance after suggested/possible redevelopment of a select number of sites. Lacking is a graphic equivalent to Fig. 2F showing what could be built. Also lacking are street-perspective views or "fly-throughs"; the illustrations are all from an "eye in the sky" POV which tends to minimize actual height.

Following the illustrated maps is a visually pleasing section (pp. 55-61) on "Public Space" which shows improved landscaping at parks, more of a "plaza" feel at Sherman and Orrington and Davis created by re-configuring the intersection, and a new "pocket park" at Maple and Grove to offset the high-rises they envision lining Grove (and shutting in the brand-new Winthrop Club development). The illustration of Fountain Square possibilities somewhat exaggerates the plaza-ness by adding "special paving" in the streets themselves. This would indeed create more of a plaza-like appearance, but pedestrians can't stand in the middle of the intersection, no matter how quaint the road surface is. Nevertheless, it could help in making Fountain Square more like Harvard Square. One wonders if the concept could be taken a step further, re-configuring the streets to create a real "square" around which traffic circulates.

The last 45 pp of the Plan are devoted to "Zoning Critique and Recommendations" (§7) and "Form-Based Zoning for Downtown" (§8).

"Zoning Critique and Recommendations" critiques the zoning adopted in 1993. The Plan asserts (without reference) that the purpose of 1993's zoning was to encourage multi-use and greater intensity and density. It does not say how long the previous zoning was in place or what changes were made in 1993, which deprives the reader of some context and rationale. It says the current rules are "often rigid, confusing, and impractical in face of real estate market trends." It claims that a 3.5 stories/42' height limit for 1/3 of downtown is "out of sync" with a vibrant, walkable downtown. There is no explanation or reference anywhere in the Plan for this somewhat counterintuitive assertion, which both contradicts the earlier statement that downtown is currently vibrant, and implies that pedestrians prefer to weave their way through tall buildings, which is not exactly what Smart Growth or New Urbanism theorize. Since retail is only on ground floors, making buildings taller doesn't make anything closer except for their residents.

The Critique says that height limit has functioned not as a limit but as starting point because of planned development allowances (i.e. site development allowances, or SDAs). Few in Evanston would quarrel, and the consultants deserve some credit for pointing this out.

The Critique wants to shift the focus of regulation from use to design. However, this does not address how the City is supposed to achieve the uses currently lacking; presumably the Invisible Hand of the Market will work its usual magic.

This section then addresses 7 aspects of current zoning with recommendations to achieve the "community's goals" for a "desirable urban form." Note that what the community "desired" is not stated. It is ignored. The 7 areas addressed are as follows:

  • Current zoning regulations. The "Findings" are that current zoning "does not reflect an "urban form" (not defined or explained); that the districts are inconsistent with downtown boundaries (because they extend beyond, easily curable in other ways); that height limits are inconsistent (true); and that design guidelines should be part of code. The "Recommendations" are that Code should define "character areas," per recommendations of the 1-week charette in July, 2007. These 3 areas are core: high density high-rise; traditional; edge (including "university link").
    They recommend abolishing the Research Park zoning district as "out of date." No explanation for this.
  • Building Height and Scale. The "Findings" and "Recommendations" here will likely provoke the most controversy. While recognizing that past decisions ignored pre-existing rules (the routine grant of SDAs has left members of the public with the perception that the current rules are meaningless (p. 63); the requirement of "public benefit" has been "loosely administered" (p. 64), the Plan's answer is, basically, to let the exception become the rule, and codify the practice of letting the previous cap be a starting point.
  • Downtown Parking Findings: Again, the Plan recommends reducing parking requirements, i.e., make it easier for developers to build condos.
  • Planned Development Review. The Plan recommends eliminating the planned development review process, which it finds has too low a threshold anyway, in favor of a "bonus review" for those seeking even higher buildings than will now be allowed as of right.
  • Development Allowances. The Plan recommends allowing additional height/density for projects that provide Gold/Platinum LEED certification, affordable housing in excess of the city's minimum, street/sidewalk improvements, tree planting, creating public parks or open spaces, historic preservation, arts and culture, underground parking, alley improvements, bike/pedestrian improvements, and day care. These are out of the "smart growth" playbook.
  • Planned Development Design Guidelines. The Plan recommends prominent ground floor windows, upper-story minimum setbacks varying by zoning classification, building out to the lot line, and concealing parking structures.

The final section, "Form Based Zoning for Downtown," finally gets to the nuts and bolts of the Plan. It sets forth the three basic types of districts (core, traditional, and edge/transitional) and, for each, states where the buildings should be, and what they should look like; parking, floor area, and use regulations. The next section then sets forth a list of "bonuses" by which the specified form can be exceeded (pp. 91-101).

The "transitional" districts on the "edge" of downtown are given a minimum "cap" of 6 stories which can increase to 8 or 10 stories (the Figures are inconsistent with the text) with public benefits; the northwest "edge" district (along Emerson) can go up to 8 stories as of right, and up to 15 with bonuses.

The "traditional" blocks are initially capped at three stories but can go up to 5 with bonuses. Floors above the third floor must be stepped back.

Most of downtown will be "core" districts." Two will have a minimum of 15, able to go up to either 18 or 30 stories with bonuses. However the Fountain Square block is considered a special core district that may go to 25 stories as of right and up to 42 stories with bonuses. Floors above the 4th floor must be stepped back, with additional stepbacks higher up (on 16th and 26th floors).

Bonuses ranging from 5% to 20% of additional floor area ratio (FAR) are then awarded for the aforesaid benefits, with more specific criteria than under current planned development rules, to provide more certainty and specific "benefit."

In the core and traditional districts, the "uses" are essentially that the first floor must not be residential. In the edge districts, the ground floor may be (i.e. a building can be entirely condo).

Overall, the Plan's zoning recommendations greatly simplify zoning. They also greatly increase the downtown core, including the entire Research Park, and as the map shows, greatly increase the amount of density that can be built as of right. The Plan ensures no more Mies boxes, and resurrects the ziggurat theory of the art deco period and the light and space required of many early tall skyscrapers. It also allows a lot more skyscrapers, period.

The following, in no particular order, are some points that jump out from the Plan.


  • The Plan states that the #1 goal is to be "livable" and the first 4 attributes stated are "attractive, convenient, livable, sustainable," but the top objective listed is titled "optimize economic development." There is a difference, as John Lamotte has noted in interviews but not in the Plan, between optimal and maximum; you don't maintain human scale by making humans look like ants. Yet the Plan endorses growth and every development "opportunity," what many would consider maximization, and does not explain how this will make downtown more livable or sustainable;
  • Objective 2, like previous plans and visioning, says we should encourage rehab and adaptive re-use, but what in the Plan does this? I couldn't find anything.
  • the Plan superficially has more controls and guidance, but in effect the Plan lets the height/mass exception become the rule, the tradeoff being a retreat from sheer vertical design;
  • the market study asserts that adding 200 units per year of additional housing supply will increase values for Evanston residents; basic supply/demand principles and actual studies of upzoning suggest the opposite. The reality is probably a mix; some land values will go up, others will drop.


  • It is yet another Plan without any end-state goal. It claims to strive toward "optimal" without saying what "optimal" is. When is population overpopulation? When is dense too dense? There is no "finding" that downtown has insufficient residents or traffic; perhaps we are already at, or past, optimal. The closest the Plan comes is the statements, as on p. 48, as to what downtown "can physically accommodate" (or "handle"). Yet asking what we can handle is not the same as asking what is optimal, and asking a different question produces a different answer.
  • The forecasted and recommended rate of growth for condo/apartment dwellers will reduce single-family homeowners in Evanston to a minority. The Plan has no discussion of the overall effect on the character of city by decreasing the relative percentage and importance of single-family homeowners; in fact, other than general applause for economic vibrancy, sociological discussion is largely absent from this urban planning document that claims Smart Growth thinking.
  • the plan largely abandons zoning as a way to guide use, without reference as to the theoretical basis for that, or how that has worked out elsewhere in practice.
  • no costs to growth are identified. None. Either locally or globally.
  • there is no mention of the carbon footprint and resource consumption of construction activity, or the costs and inconvenience to the public of downtown Evanston being under construction (at the level of 200 units per year for the next 10 years).
  • "Smart Growth" is under some criticism both from the left and the right. Eco-economists such as Bill McKibben point out that we can't grow our way to sustainability. See Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007). Libertarians such as Randal O'Toole contend that "smart growth" and "transit oriented density" are not actually getting anyone out of their cars, just making developers and crony politicians rich off lots of private and public development while building condos for people who weren't going to be driving anyway. See
  • Objective 1 talks about incentives to retain/develop office space but there are no such incentives identified and it is not a factor in bonuses, unless I overlooked it at first reading
  • the impact on churches, such as Mt. Zion, which the Plan surrounds with dense mass
  • no mention of African-American or minority residents, Evanston's homeless, affordable housing needs, ripple effect on Evanston land values (other than to raise them), or children. Affordable housing is not discussed, it just appears as a bonus item in §8.
  • the 2000 Comprehensive General Plan emphasized adaptive reuse and maintaining and supporting existing retail a lot more than this Plan, and also said that City should use design guidelines to "to maintain and enhance the existing visual context of the area." Has this been abandoned? If not, what in this Plan encourages adaptive reuse? Nothing is apparent.


  • the assertion of a past City policy to promote downtown as a place of 24/7 activity (p. 9) is news to downtown workers, and inconsistent with the City's actual policy of forbidding parking on downtown streets in late hours, and imposing limits on when businesses can be open
  • I would like to see the backup for the assertion that the 1989 plan and 1993 downtown rezonings were designed to encourage greater height and intensity through PDs (p. 10). It is possibly true, but if so, most residents were probably unaware of this.

While this Plan tracks the laundry list of Smart Growth factors, many are only in "wish list" form. Also, the Plan offers few real means of ensuring they occur (although development will).

  • Smart Growth / New Urbanism favors small buildings, compact, and that the center of the city should be public space. The focus is on the public realm. By contrast, this Plan mainly gives us bigger buildings, and more of them. Tho it draws pictures of parks and improvements, like many of the "wish list" items in previous plans, those may (or, given our finances, may well not) occur.
  • I am unaware of any Smart Growth document urging that "urban form" is exemplified by a massive shaft as city center, or saying that the smallest block in downtown is best for the tallest building. "Livable cities" aim for a useful public space as center, and/or surround height with space.
  • A small but important issue is lack of real bicycle implementation or incentives. Smart growth says to put in bicycle routes, racks, and showers, etc. where needed. The Plan says only to accommodate bicycles where feasible. That's a big difference. Bikes seem an afterthought here.

FINAL NOTE: the devil being in the details, the entire success or failure of a cap-and-bonus plan depends on where the base zoning is set, and how the bonuses are measured and administered. I urge anyone who has made it this far and is still awake to read the excellent articles by the Austin Chronicle's Katherine Gregor. Austin, TX in 2007 went through a very similar process. Gregor does an incredible job of explaining what goes into a density-bonus program and what citizens, and cities, need to take into consideration. In particular Gregor urges NOT giving away the store in base zoning. The bonuses are a matter for public hearing by themselves.

Gregor's article (with two lengthy side boxes, including examples) on density bonus urban planning are located here: