New buildings raise concerns about optional review process

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

The Evanston building boom has brought new revenue to the city, but it has also brought new — and some say uglier — construction styles, and residents are concerned.

“There has been a lot of discussion (about the new aesthetics) over the past several years,” said James Wolinski, director of community development. “Residents are not thrilled with the appearance (of some buildings).”

To address these concerns, members of the city’s Planning and Development Committee, Plan Commission, and Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee (SPARC) are proposing that the city amend two of its building ordinances to make them binding.

Both site-plan review and appearance review — the two city ordinances that advise the development of new buildings — currently are not mandatory in Evanston, according to Wolinski. Site-plan review sets rules on lighting, signage and parking; appearance review addresses proper building materials and other architectural features, he said.

Developers generally have cooperated with city requests, said Jack Siegel, corporation counsel for the city of Evanston.

Nevertheless, the Plan Commission, which has general authority over land usage and makes recommendations to Evanston City Council, wants to ensure all building plans are reviewed by SPARC — a body of appointed residents and architects — before being built, Wolinski said.

Ald. Stephen Engelman (7th) said he has heard complaints from residents that some of the new buildings do not fit in with their Evanston surroundings.

Two new developments — Chicago Avenue Place, south of Dempster Avenue, and Optima Towers, 800 Davis St. — have received the most criticism from residents, according to Wolinski.

Currently developers must show their blueprints to the Planning and Development Committee and other city staff members but are not obliged to accept any recommendations.

Siegel, who has been working on the amendment for almost six months, said making city recommendations binding might present legal problems because the city has no established aesthetic standards.

“We (shouldn’t) give unbridled discretion to an administrative body,” he said. “If they’re going to make it binding, they must have definite standards. The whole idea is developers ought to know the ideas by which they have to live.”

Siegel and some city staff members also think residents should be included in the review of building plans.

“There’s an element of due process to give neighbors an opportunity to be heard,” he said.

In addition, Siegel has proposed that an appeals process be included in the amendment. He suggested that developers who initially are rejected should be able to ask City Council to review that decision.

Ultimately, City Council must adopt the amendment. If it amends the site plan, it must decide if an appeals process should be included and which administrative agency would hear the request, Wolinski said.

Engelman said some of the aldermen who are opposed to binding appearance review think the city does not need a “face police” to determine “what looks good and what doesn’t.”

“It’s a mistake in Evanston, (and) it stifles creativity,” he said. “If we had binding appearance review, would we have Frank Lloyd Wright?”