Library Lot Development Should Respect Historic Context

On May 8 the City Council reversed itself and authorized the City Manager to negotiate the development and sale of the City-owned Evanston Library Parking Lot. The decision mystifies us because the proposed development ignored the requirements of the City’s own request-for-proposals. With its over scale proportions, the development turns its back on two adjoining landmarks. The RFP demanded that the proposer provide “contextual and high quality design.” Instead, by its massive scale, overshadowing height and narrow setbacks, the proposed development totally ignores its context, which includes two historic neighbors.

The Frances Willard House and the 19th-century wooden houses that flank it are immediately north of the proposed development. These structures mark this block as one of the most significant women’s history-related sites, not only in Evanston, but also in Illinois, and in our nation. The Frances Willard House, a National Historic Landmark, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) Headquarters Building, a National Register site, abut the parking lot on the north, at 1724-32 Chicago Ave. All four buildings at the WCTU site also make up the Evanston WCTU Historic District, one of four Evanston historic districts.

Another National Register site, the Woman’s Club of Evanston, abuts the development site to the south. These buildings are the last remaining structures of the residential scale (two- and three-story) neighborhood that used to make up downtown Evanston.

The women’s temperance movement was part of the 19th-century progressive reform efforts to expand women’s rights and activism.

The WCTU advanced many issues beyond educating people about the harm caused by alcohol. These issues included voting rights, legal rights, and worker’s rights.

More than one million signatures from women around the world were collected on petitions preserved here in Evanston. A chestnut tree planted by Frances Willard in the 1890s graces the garden between Willard House and the Headquarters Building behind it. This historic site, which is so evocative of movements toward greater equality, is threatened by what has been proposed for the library parking lot.

In 2016, the City of Evanston released a request for proposals (RFP) with several stipulations, including that the land would be sold for $5 million and that office buildings were encouraged.

Only one developer submitted a responsive proposal, subsequently reduced to an 11-story structure with a reduction in the price of the property to $4 million. This plan proposes the full use of the available land, placing a towering structure within five feet of the north and south property lines. The forbidding brick walls right next to these historic buildings destroy their historic context with overwhelming massing.

The City, if it chooses to allow a development on the parking lot, should require that it be revised to reduce its scale, and to provide for reduced height, a redesign sympathetic to its historic surroundings, and setbacks sufficient to eliminate the bulk that impinges on these low-rise 19th-century structures. The development should be re-designed to obey the RFP condition for a contextual development.

As in any process that creates an adverse impact on neighboring properties, the Frances Willard Historical Association must be engaged in the discussion and have the opportunity to shape the project in these early stages. We intend to meet with the City Manager, the developer, and City Council members as active participants in the planning process. Such participation is mandated by Evanston’s Planned Development and Plan Commission procedures.

Most importantly, this is about the disposition of City-owned land, which belongs to Evanston’s residents.

All neighbors should be concerned, as we are, by the alley’s unusual traffic pattern and heavy alley traffic inherent in the proposal as submitted. All building parking and service vehicle access will be via this already congested alley. Another concern is recognizing the hazard that exists with the current mix of pedestrian and vehicle traffic in a heavily used alley. Add to this mix: More office workers from the new building will no doubt use the alley for their comings and goings on foot. Replacing the parking spaces that will be lost and allowing safe and open access to the alley are additional concerns, as is the challenge of protecting the security of the neighboring private properties.

Evanston should not encourage development that does not take into account the needs of neighbors and the wider community. In summary, we would like to see development within reasonable parameters that is contextual, sensitive to the historic district, and that makes sense for everyone concerned.

And, finally, we invite the community to learn firsthand what is at stake by visiting the property and touring the Willard House.

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