Ilana Arougheti, In Focus Editor

From the gravelly lot on Church Street claimed for the Northlight Theatre to the corporate tower primed to replace the shuttered Burger King, Evanston’s skyline has long been in flux.

Many developers have claimed a chunk of real estate downtown in the last few years, and all have jumped through the same set of occasionally tricky hoops. So how do real estate developers get building approval, and how long does that process take?

Getting approval 

Developers hoping to construct from scratch or renovate a building will need a few rubber stamps from the city’s Community Development Department. 

A series of city zoning ordinances dictates what new buildings can look like, what amenities they can include and how they can occupy space. The city checks proposed new buildings against this set of rules if they have outside elements like porches, decks or stairs. 

The Historic Preservation Commission may block some construction on historic sites or lots in historic neighborhoods. Some city sites, most notably the Harley Clarke Mansion recently leased to Artists Book House, are registered as National Historical Landmarks — requiring some parts of the original property to be preserved in any new development plans. 

These decisions are also based on the Evanston Preservation Plan, developed in 1981 by a municipal committee. To break ground on a historical site, a developer will need a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Preservation Commission. 

Once a zoning inspection passes, developers need a signed and sealed architectural draft of plans for the site before they can apply online for a building permit. The city expects a review to take four to six weeks. Depending on the scope of the project, further reviews might be conducted for architectural, civil, health and fire standards.

The city’s Land Use Commission also weighs in to advise City Council about how a proposed new development impacts general plans for Evanston’s future cityscape. This commission took effect in January and combines the duties of Evanston’s old Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals. 

New construction is also reviewed by the Design and Project Review Committee. This group is meant to give residents more agency in reviewing the developments in their community — though the city considered scrapping DAPR in June to make development requests more efficient. 

City staffers involved in everything from engineering to the fire department talk about how a proposed new building would stack up against city codes. Meanwhile, residents are invited to speak. 

After passing through Land Use, new developments ultimately have to be approved by City Council. Here, every item is brought up twice once as a proposal and once for a vote. Before the vote, councilmembers might host community meetings in their wards or in general to gauge resident feedback on new construction. 

When one such new building a mixed-income housing complex was brought before the council in March, the city estimated that the entire approval process would take six to nine months. 

Building a city 

Families and homeowners who want to make smaller additions to their property —like replacing their roof or building a patio — also have to go through the city, but the process is simpler than for developers. The homeowners must submit a building permit application for review, then the city inspects any construction work.

Most new developments proposed in the last two years have been residential high-rise buildings — a shift in the city landscape which has drawn criticism from students and residents alike. Some will update or expand existing housing complexes, including CJE SeniorLife and The Link; others will focus on dedicated affordable housing units. 

On the commercial side, Northlight and an addition to the YWCA were recently approved. Earlier this year, a proposed development to the old Century 12 movie theater dominated local headlines, as well as plans for The Aux, a Black-owned business hub set to open in the 2nd Ward. 

City Council has approved seven large-scale real estate developments since 2020. Some still don’t have set completion dates.

Another four have been proposed but are stuck in the pipeline. These include two planned high-rise residential properties waiting for a community meeting to be scheduled, along with the proposed site of the Kensington School and Child Daycare Center. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter:  @ilana_arougheti

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