A New Urbanist Charrette Comes to TOD City, Part 1

A leading post-baby-boomer new urbanist architect-planner, Kevin Klinkenberg, led a five-day charrette in Evanston last week, before catching a well deserved Cubs game on Saturday. Kevin’s peers are also doing admirable work, just not as close to home as Evanston. So though I had to skip the Cubs game, I caught Kevin’s closing presentation as well as some of the question-and-answer period that followed with constituents in Evanston.

The event confirmed – yet again – why the charrette (in the right hands) has become such an indispensable planning tool. There is simply no better way than these collaborative design workshops to help community members and their elected leaders envision how development can be shaped to improve the livability, character, and economic viability of their communities.

Charrettes have proved their value in ultra challenging situations such as post-Katrina Mississippi (see this posting on progress in Gulfport). Evanston is clearly a long way from Gulfport but the city faces some unique planning challenges as well as some incredible opportunities. The first lakeside suburb north of Chicago, Evanston is in a development sweet spot, fueled by its intact urban character and transit access. Connected both to Chicago’s “L” rail system and the region’s Metra commuter rail system, the once urbane and slightly tatty downtown has been transformed by a series of mixed-use towers and street-level retail developments catering to rail commuters.

It’s one of the most exciting examples of transit-oriented – and environmentally minded – development in the country. The new residents of Evanston walk and take transit for many of their trips, resulting in great reductions in the amount of transportation-related greenhouse gases they generate. But not surprisingly, the new development has created a lot of uneasiness among longtime residents, some of whom feel like they’ve been hit by a TOD tsunami.

As seen at right, some of it looms rather awkwardly in the skyline above fine-grained fabric from earlier eras, even though many of the bases of the buildings have been handled in a way that activates the street with vibrant storefronts, with set-back towers receding from view as one walks by. A recurring source of debate are yellow balconies that are seen as eyesores by some and swank modern amenities by others. The image of the plaza shows that some of Evanston’s shortcomings predate the recent controversies over whether to build towers and how to tame them.

Handling the urban design charrette as part of a more comprehensive downtown planning project headed by the Duncan Group, Klinkenberg and his Kansas City-based team from 180 Degrees Design Studio had a tough job to do: engage residents in envisioning how future development could be leveraged to reinforce existing character and bring them more of what they want from Evanston – more intimacy, rewarding public spaces, an improved pedestrian realm, and positive economic prospects. With the table set, I’ll describe in a separate post the planning team’s impressive performance in addressing these goals.


Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!