Speed a rare thing in city government

Paul Thissen

When I started working for The Daily about two years ago, one of the first Evanston city government meetings I covered was about the future of the property vacated by Kendall College.

Last winter, I attended a meeting about the same issue. A year had passed, but everything else was eerily similar – I even thought I had seen some of the same blueprints a year before.

Today, one of my reporters is going to a meeting about the same issue. Probably, I could cut and paste half of the quotes from the two-year-old story into a new one and they would still make sense.

When dealing with the Evanston City Council, everything takes forever. The Kendall property is one example, but there are plenty of others: the Georgian, the Civic Center or the elm trees.

One recent example: Tuesday the Planning and Development committee postponed a decision on the historic landmark status of the Civic Center indefinitely. This round of discussion began about a year ago; the issue first came up in the 1990s. Likely, a decision is years away.

A project is proposed in the Planning and Development committee, then it is referred to the Preservation Commission to determine if the changes would ruin the historic character of the neighborhood, then it is referred back to the Planning and Development committee, then maybe it reaches the full City Council. Appeals can exist at nearly every step of the process.

Of course, each stage requires several multiple-hour meetings. Each side makes the same arguments each time. Then everyone pledges to change their proposals and positions, then they come back two weeks or two months later and almost nothing has changed.

In the Kendall case, it should have been clear to everyone what was going to happen – the developer wanted to build a huge number of townhouses on the site and the council wasn’t going to let him because local residents didn’t want a big development built there.

There is no problem with the outcome, but the process is stupid.

The Preservation Commission is used as a backdoor way to oppose development. Preservationists make plenty of impassioned pleas to keep some old buildings, but in the Kendall case it’s suspicious they grew a sudden affinity for the buildings right before they were slated to be replaced with townhouses. It’s also suspicious that all the activists for preservation live right next to the buildings. If the buildings really merited historic landmark status, wouldn’t someone who lived more than two blocks away care about them?

Admittedly much of the fault lies with developers. They come back to each meeting with a proposal that differs only slightly from their previous one, hoping that the council will magically feel differently about it.

But if the council was clear early on about what it would or would not accept, developers wouldn’t be able to play games.

Formal limits on how long any project can be considered would also help, as would limits on the duration of any individual meeting.

Until the council steps up and reforms the system, it will continue to be taken for a ride by developers, activists or any other interest group.

Besides wasting time, hours of meetings can’t be cheap for anyone. Unfortunately, shorting meetings and dissolving committees is not a solution to the city’s budget problems anyone is likely to propose.

City Editor Paul Thissen is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]