Residents angry over tower vote

Ben Geier

After nearly two years of meetings and careful decision-making, Coleen Burrus thought that her work on the City of Evanston Plan Commission was about to be put into action. She was shocked to see the Evanston City Council disregard it.

“Why have citizen commissions if you’re going to ignore them?” said Burrus, Northwestern’s director of corporate relations, who is running for alderman.

At a Jan. 14 meeting of the council’s Planning and Development Committee, the members defied the commission by voting to establish a central core district in downtown Evanston – a decision that clears the way for the proposed and controversial Fountain Square Tower at 708 Church St.

In addition to upsetting the commission, the decision left many residents feeling “betrayed,” one meeting attendee said.

The proposed central core will feature a maximum building height of 35 stories, as opposed to the 25 stories in the rest of the downtown core district.

The committee voted 6-2 to pass the core in an amendment to the Downtown Plan draft, which aldermen decided had to be approved before the tower proposal could be considered. Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) and Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) dissented.

In explaining his vote Wednesday, Chairman Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) said that he felt development in the area was economically important.

“If we’re going to be aggressive in terms of building, that’s going to be where to do it,” he said.

The question of the central core was an important one within the Plan Commission. Burrus said she proposed to not have a central core.

“That is the only vote in the Plan Commission that had a majority vote,” she said.

She added her proposal passed 5-3, while every other vote was deadlocked at 4-4.

The committee’s decision also angered other Evanston residents.

Hank Goldman, who lives at Sherman Plaza, 807 Davis St., said he was unhappy with the Jan. 14 meeting, which he attended.

“I think that the citizens of Evanston had the wool pulled over their eyes that night, particularly by Moran and (Eighth Ward Ald. Ann) Rainey,” he said. “It certainly sounded at that meeting as though it was very scripted.”

He cited the economy as one of the reasons for his opposition, saying, “We don’t need a 49 or 35 story building right now in this economy.”

Resident Barb Rakley, a long-time follower of the Downtown Plan, estimated that two-thirds of the citizens in attendance at Plan Commission meetings were against the central core.

After defying the commission, the aldermen asked city staff to ready a revised draft of the plan by the Planning and Development Committee meeting on Feb. 9. It will be made a special order of business at the full council meeting that night.

Though the Downtown Plan is only awaiting final approval, it seems likely to remain important as another Evanston topic approaches: city elections in April.

“I believe that anyone who’s running for office should vote against it, because the citizens are angry,” Burrus said.

Moran, who is not running for re-election, disagreed.

“I think the people who vote for what we’ve done in the committee will do much better in the elections than those who don’t,” he said.

Moran added that he felt Evanston residents could see the broader issue, and would vote based on that. Regardless of how it will impact the election, Goldman and Moran agreed the issue would come up often in the next several months.

“The citizens of Evanston really feel betrayed, and I think you’re going to see the results of that in the elections,” Goldman said. “It’s going to be one of the number one issues that people want to know about.”

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