Committee sets skyscraper limits

Ben Geier

Confusion and disagreement about building heights dominated the Evanston Planning and Development Committee meeting Wednesday.

After extended debate, the committee agreed to establish a central core district downtown, with maximum building heights between 27 and 35 stories, depending on circumstances.

“I don’t necessarily think we need a central core,” said Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) to a significant round of applause from Evanston residents.

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) disagreed, motioning that the committee designate a central core district with a maximum height of 42 stories. After an amendment from Ald. Cheryl Wollin (1st) changed the maximum height from 42 to 35 stories, the motion passed over objections from Wynne and Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th).

But the problem of the central core district was not to be solved so easily.

Throughout the Evanston Draft Downtown Plan, each district has two options for building height.

First, each has a base height, or the maximum height of a building under normal circumstances. Second, each district has a maximum with bonus height, or the tallest a building can be if developers meet certain public benefits that merit bonus height.

Wynne argued that since Rainey’s amended motion had declared a maximum height of 35 stories, the committee still had to agree on a base height. She then motioned that the committee adopt a base height of 16 stories for the central core district.

Rainey felt this height was too short for a base height. She argued that such a disparity between the base and maximum heights would make it financially impossible for any developer to meet the public benefits to get the maximum bonus.

“I think the last thing we want to do is make development impossible in downtown Evanston,” she said.

After Rainey spoke, sighs and comments such as “listen to the people” were heard in the gallery.

“I didn’t come to the planning commission and mutter in the audience,” Rainey said. “I would ask all of you who are such good citizens to try to behave.”

Eventually, the conversation turned to voting on Wynne’s proposal of a base height of 16 stories. Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) said because the committee passed Rainey’s original motion, Rainey should propose a base height.

Wynne was strongly against this idea.

“You’re putting words in Ald. Rainey’s mouth,” she said.

Ultimately, Rainey proposed the base height be established at 27 stories. This motion was passed, again over the opposition of Wynne and Bernstein.

The next controversial topic was plans to be made for Fountain Square.

The committee members agreed the plan needed to be altered to create a better public space, but they disagreed about how to best do that. Most simply wanted to redesign the area, but Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) wanted to look at the possibility of purchasing buildings on the north or south side of the square.

“Maybe I’m the only one who wants to do that, but I want to do that,” he said.

Moran’s words proved accurate, as the committee voted 7-1 not to look into purchasing either property.

The committee also voted to explore options regarding public theater space, changes to Bookman’s Alley and the Benson Street Marketplace. Nothing binding was put into the Downtown Plan, and the proposals were merely noted as options to be explored.

The rest of the agenda, including items about parks and various public amenities, will be discussed at the next regularly scheduled Planning and Development meeting Jan. 26, with another special meeting to be scheduled if needed.

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