ZONING MAP AND TEXT AMENDMENTS
On Wednesday, December 8, the Evanston Plan Commission met to host a public hearing on the adoption of the Map and Text Amendment for the City's new Downtown Plan. This meeting was a culmination of the year-long process to convert the Plan into an enforceable Zoning Code. Discussions about the minutia of the zoning changes have been long, and those discussions continued at the December 8 meeting. The Commission did not take its final vote on the Amendment, but will do so on January 12, 2011. The Amendment will then go to the City Council for a final vote on amending the Zoning Code.
Issues of relevance to the SEA include the height, density, and setback requirements of the new Plan; and, the process by which citizens, the Plan Commission, and the City Council review proposals for new developments. The Amendment has one advantage over the old Zoning Code: it sets an absolute limit on height and Floor Area Ratio (FAR) that even the City Council cannot overturn. Those limits are reachable only if a development delivers specific public benefits, such as a sustainable building, underground parking, etc. The Amendment includes the greatly increased limits for the core downtown areas, which were a controversial part of the Downtown Plan. While the SEA board has expressed opposition to the height of 385 feet, this battle may well be lost. It is most likely doubtful that the current City Council membership will look at it again.
Of more immediate concern are the limits presented for the "Transitional" areas on the east, west, and northwest sides of downtown. The west side allows 66 feet as of right, and is capped at 88 feet with public benefits. This is reasonable. The east side, of specific interest to our members, also allows 66 feet as of right. However, it is capped at 110 feet with public benefits (with an FAR cap of 5). While this is higher than many residents want (and doesn't make sense in light of lower limits on the west side), it represents a considerable improvement over the allowances that were part of the former Planned Development process. The residents who have lost out in this process are those on the northwest side, where the height, with public benefits, is capped at 165 feet. This limit was undoubtedly adopted to allow those projects that already had been approved for the area before the new Plan was adopted. Since those projects are now defunct, for the most part, it's unfortunate that such limits still remain in the new Amendment.
The proposed Text Amendment makes some significant changes in the development approval process. First, any property owner can build a structure less than 110 feet as of right - if it conforms to the (minimal) design guidelines of the Downtown Plan - without any public review. Second, it is unclear how much impact the Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee (SPAARC) will have when reviewing these new projects.
Finally, the key to what additional height and FAR will actually be allowed in new developments will lie in the interpretation of the alleged public benefits of a project. Any development that seeks height/density allowances for public benefits must go through a Plan Commission review. The City Council will then make the final decision on granting greater height or density in exchange for the public benefits. Still at issue during the Wednesday night meeting was whether the Plan Commission will have discretion in deciding that a developer doesn't meet the public benefit guidelines, or whether the City Council alone will make that decision; or, whether both agencies could reject an application even if it were to be found to meet the requirements for public benefits.