Thursday, April 10, 2008

Confessions of an Evanston Luddite

OK, call me a Luddite.
That's the label that Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic and a fellow local blogger, is slapping on those who oppose new skyscraper construction in Evanston.
The Luddite reference is aimed at a grassroots "No Tower" campaign that's gaining traction within the community. Already, opposition to the original 49-story plan has forced the project's developers to literally go back to the drawing board and come back with a design for a shorter, squatter 38-story skyscraper.
Any major development requires the approval of the Evanston City Council.
Now Luddites are anti-progress. In the dawn of the industrial age, they destroyed machinery that threatened to take away their jobs. In the Internet era, Luddites oppose the use of cutting-edge information systems (although they are technically called neo-Luddites).
While I've never considered myself anti-progress, I'll gladly wear the Luddite jacket this time around. To me, it would be a huge mistake to build this proposed monstrosity in the heart of Evanston's downtown.
Even at 38 stories, we're looking at one ugly and unforgiving addition to the north suburb's skyline. Aesthetics aside, a project of this proportion will pose huge practical burdens by adding heaps of new traffic, congestion and parking on top of the city's already limited infrastructure and urban management expertise.
Remember this is a town that ran out of street salt this winter. So much for planning.
Moreover, whose idea is it to add more condominiums to Evanston's residential mix? Ask any real estate agent and they'll tell you that the condo and townhouse supply far exceeds demand and is expected to do so for many years to come. What is the economic benefit of having a tower that may not be filled or takes buyers away from existing buildings? Already, plans for new condo towers in Chicago and elsewhere are being tabled or are on shaky financial ground. What makes Evanston so special?
In addition, backers of the "Fountain Square" tower plan argue that the new development will boost local economic development and the tax base. Oh, really? I'd argue that any gains would be offset by the aforementioned stress on the city's infrastructure, services and quality of life--especially if the developers get a helping hand from the City Council in the form of a Tax Increment Financing plan.
(TIF districts are like catnip to developers. They must lick their chops at the mere thought of them.)
Kamin says he's got problems with the proposed condo plan and agrees with some of its critics. He also makes an argument that Evanston needs a "focal point" building of at least 35 stories. Without it, he contends, the skyline will look flat as a pancake (with the exception of those lumpy apple pancakes that are a speciality of Walker Bros. I assume).
Well, who said Evanston needs a focal point? I've lived there for nearly 20 years and started out as a reporter for the Evanston Review way back when and don't recall that issue being part of any municipal mandate or ballot referendum. Using the "focal point" criteria to approve any single project would be foolish.
And while I'm at it, who thinks Evanston has done such a terrific job with other condo developments that it has approved? To my eye, Evanston allows developers to get the biggest bang for their buck by building right to the tip of a boundary line with little or no decorative setting or public comfort zone. Take a drive through town, if you doubt that one.
In Chicago, Mayor Daley drives developers bats by demanding reasonable setbacks, ornamental fencing, flower pots, public spaces and other amenities.
That said, Evanston has done an admirable job of commercially developing its downtown. The addition of book stores, movie theatre, restaurants, parking are pumping vitality into a once stagnant district that now beckons families and young people from nearby Northwestern University and other suburbs.
Should downtown be further redeveloped? Yes.
I'd like to see the proposed condo tower site turned into a low-slung, attractive and financially viable mixed-use center--one that offers offices, stores (for chains and local merchants)and entertainment. Maybe some apartments, too.
Now, that's a plan every self-respecting Luddite can live with.


scotirish said...

So now where do I place this "Luddite" label on my resume. I've lived here in Evanston for 30 years and worked for Pioneer Press on two different occasions. I've witnessed this transformation of Evanston and it hasn't been pretty. The core of the change is reflected directly to the brain-trust that runs this town at the particular point of alteration. Namely, the city council. When I moved here the city council was made up of mostly men who it is argued were mostly lawyers. When Lorraine Morton took over then came the influx of not only women replacements but ex-school board replacements. What I am saying is that the current council, and for some time at that are not capable of handling developers who have run roughshod over the council and getting their way.

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