Summary of Central Street Plan Zoning Ordinances

On January 28, 2008, the City Council unanimously passed two ordinances, 5-O-08 and 6-O-08, that, combined, change zoning in the 2-mile long "Central Street Corridor." Zoning is the City law that determines what can be built where. The passage of these important ordinances was the largest change ever applied to so long an expanse along a single thoroughfare in Evanston, and was the culmination of over a year of visioning, planning, hearings, and negotiation,

involving thousands of hours of meeting attendance, research, and just plain hard work by Central Street Neighbors Association members, other residents, consultants, City Council and Plan Commission members, and city staff. The Central Street Master Plan was adopted in June, 2007. As we stated then, the Plan contained many pages of feel-good text and attractive color illustrations, but a discrepancy between what was shown and what was zoned. We knew that the hard work in getting the Plan to function as intended would come in hammering out the zoning details. The ordinances implement zoning changes in two ways. First, certain areas along Central Street are rezoned altogether. Second, special requirements or constraints are "overlaid" over some or all of seven sub-areas (collectively, the "Overlay District"). The highlights of the changes accomplished in these ordinances are as follows:

• Unlimited Site Development Allowances Banned. One reason controversial past projects were approved is that Evanston code allows zoning to be ignored: significant extra height, mass, or other deviations from code, called "site development allowances" (SDAs), can be granted by the City Council if the project is a "planned development," i.e., over 24 units or 20,000 s.f. of true floor area. Many residents as well as City consultants have concluded that this loophole rendered zoning meaningless; we also believe it leads to speculative prices of land. In the ordinances just passed, SDAs are not permitted anywhere in the Central Street overlay district: the new zoning is intended to stick. This is a first for Evanston.

• Anti-Canyonization Provisions. Most business districts in Evanston allow or even require building up to the lot line, with sheer vertical walls. This, along with the height allowed, can create shadowed "canyons" along a street, blocking air and light and creating a cramped feeling as buildings loom over narrow sidewalks. Under the new zoning, all new buildings will have to maintain a minimum 14' "pedestrian area" from curb to building. Additionally, upper floors will have to be "stepped back," to reduce the perceived mass of the building – this move toward "form-based code" is also a first for Evanston in business districts. The maximum ratio of floor area to lot size (FAR) is also reduced, which limits the actual possible mass of the building. Unless a developer puts in special parking, FAR is capped at 1.4, meaning that on a 50x100 lot (5000 sf), the maximum retail/residential square footage that can be built (not counting parking or utility areas) is 7,000 sf. We believe these restrictions will not only result in an overall more pedestrian-friendly street, but will help preserve the existing feel of the district, and discourage speculative, thoughtless overdevelopment.

• Protection of Abutting Residential Neighborhoods. Under the ordinances, to prevent developments from looming over anyone's back yard, new construction on lots that back up to R1, R2, R3 or R4 districts must stay within a "transitional height plane," a diagonal extending forward and upward from a height of 35 feet above the rear wall of the building. Additionally, unless granted an exemption for special reasons, all new alleys must be 18' wide.

• New Restrictions on Mixed-Use B1a Business Districts. The B1a district, first used in Evanston for the area between Marcy and Bennett, is intended to preserve small-scale retail while allowing limited residential use above stores. Pre-existing code allowed heights of up to 40'. Under the new zoning, maximum height in B1a is 3 stories or 35', front upper-story stepbacks are required, and the rear transitional height plane applies.

• More Active Storefronts. A concern with new mixed-use retail-condo developments has been that the first floor is mainly used for parking, with only a veneer of retail space in front, making the streetfront unusable for most store types, and directing it toward a street-deadening office use. Under new zoning, a minimum depth of 50' "active use" is required, with such uses defined to prevent dull offices with closed blinds. There are also provisions to require minimum amounts of open window space, and architectural variation or detailing to avoid sheer or blank-looking vertical walls.

• "Central" Business District Downzoned. Prior to these ordinances, the stretch from Hartrey (Great Harvest) to Eastwood (Mustard's Last Stand) was zoned B2, and it could be redeveloped to four stories and 45' (or more with SDAs). Under the new ordinances, this stretch is downzoned to B1a and is subject to the restrictions above. In addition, the stretch from Great Harvest to Prairie Joe's requires even slightly greater upper-story stepbacks, to preserve the low-rise feel surrounding Independence Park.

• The maximum height in the R5 residential areas along Central has been reduced from 55 feet to the lesser of 4 stories or 45 feet.

• All new developments have bicycle rack requirements.

• The proposed rezoning of portions of the Dyche Stadium parking area to allow mixed-use development, seen in the Master Plan, has been eliminated.

• The ordinances build in incentives for providing public parking, currently at a premium in the shopping areas.

• The ordinances are transit-oriented: development is directed away from the low-rise business districts and instead toward (a) the stretch of Green Bay directly across from (and thus walkable to) the Metra station, and (b) the far west end of the street, where new residents could easily take a bus to the university, the hospital, or either train station. These two areas are "upzoned" by changing the base zoning from a "C" district ("commercial") to a B1a business district, although with the height limits of a B2 district. This would allow up to a 4-story building on, for instance, the Citgo station lot or the Domicile furniture property. While we preferred lower height, the changes are consistent with the Master Plan approved by the Plan Commission and the City Council. Both areas are controlled: any development at the intersection of Gross Point & Crawford must be set back 30' from the street and have stepbacks above the second floor. Redevelopment in the current commercial district on Green Bay between Lincoln and Central will require stepbacks beginning with the second story, to avoid canyonization of Green Bay and to promote pedestrian use.

The "purpose" section of the zoning implementation states that the overlay district seeks to

  • Preserve existing character and scale.
  • Encourage a healthy mix of uses along the corridor; preserve independent and unique uses.
  • Sustain and enhance the corridor as a location for diverse, unique, small-scale, pedestrian-oriented retail shops, services, and restaurants.
  • Encourage retail uses close to transit.
  • Allow a wide, consistent sidewalk width.
  • Ensure wider, landscaped parkways as a transition between retail frontages and residential side streets.
  • Provide improved sight lines for motorists.
  • Ensure consistent building placement and create a pedestrian-friendly and human-scaled “street wall.”
  • Articulate buildings and reduce the perceived height and mass of new development by using building stepbacks at upper stories.
  • Establish new sidewalk standards for improved sidewalk widths, sight lines, and streetscapes.
  • Encourage buildings with clearly defined bases, middles, and tops.
  • Allow the intuitive identification of storefronts through the use of appropriate store windows and fenestration for retail and mixed-use buildings.

Overall, CSNA feels that these purposes have been advanced by the ordinances. While planning is an ongoing, fluid process and there is room for future improvement, the new code will allow Central Street to "take a breather" and avoid the hasty overdevelopment seen in many other areas of Chicagoland, while still permitting growth in harmony with the street's existing character. We were honored that during the planning and zoning phases, residents were praised for unprecedented citizen involvement and input. We thank Ald. Tisdahl and Ald. Moran for their support of the ordinances. We are extraordinarily grateful for all the hard work of so many on this mammoth task, which could not have been accomplished without the support of CSNA members. -- Jeff Smith Click the highlighted link in this sentence to download the full 8.5MB PDF of the 33-page Draft B2 of the Zoning Implementation document, complete with maps.