From Austin to Evanston, is 'Loose Tower Disease' spreading?

A contentious debate is under way in my hometown, Evanston, Illinois, where developers James Klutznick and Tim Anderson propose building a new condominium tower downtown across Church Street from the venerable (and oft-renovated) Orrington Hotel, kitty-corner from the city's Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired public library, on a site occupied by three-story buildings housing offices and local retailers. You can see what this location looks like today by plugging the address "708 Church St., Evanston, IL" into Google Maps and clicking on the "street view" link.

The original plan called for a 523-foot, 49-story skyscraper that would be the Chicago suburbs' tallest building. Several images of that plan can be found here. Many residents balked, saying the height and scale would overwhelm, rather than enhance downtown Evanston. The latest plan, unveiled April 8, calls for a 421-foot, 38-story edifice that would still be the suburbs' tallest (by 3 feet). Check out this model image here.

The Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin is covering the ongoing controversy at his blog.

Evanston has always had a strong downtown served by both Metra (suburban commuter rail) and the L (heavy, electric transit). City officials have long encouraged and allowed higher density development along the transit lines, and this project is right in line with that goal. But this tower raises the questions discussed by Stephanos Polyzoides and Sinclair Black at CNU XVI: Is this a blight on urbanism that helps destroy local retailers and damage the streetscape? Does it fit in with its surroundings? Is increased density better?

My own sense is that Evanston is trying hard to do the right thing by increasing residential density near the Metra and L stations -- it's one of the easiest ways to reduce VMT, which is absolutely a necessary goal. But this is also the city that allowed the complete and utter devastation of the Main Street/Chicago Avenue intersection by approving massive, block buildings that overwhelmed and destroyed a streetscape formerly dominated by three-story commercial buildings.

Plug "Main Street and Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL" into Google Maps and hit "street view": that squat, beige pile of condo crud on the northwest corner replaced a three-story bank building that wasn't a prize-winner, but had certain neighborhood charm. The tower on the northeast corner could have, should have been a major aesthetic improvement when it replaced a parking lot and bank drive-through. Too bad it isn't. And the two-story building on the southeast corner is gone now, about to be replaced by another mid-rise condo tower.

Little wonder then, that many of the city's residents are nervous.

UPDATE: The ongoing debate in Evanston included a July 2007 charrette run by Kevin Klinkenberg, of 180 Degree Design Studio. Steve Filmanowicz covered that charrette here (Part I) and here (Part II).

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