Why a new urbanist charrette is what TOD-fueled Evanston needs right now

So what makes a good new urbanist charrette just what Evanston needs at this pivotal point in its history – at this moment when the inner-ring Chicago suburb has become one of the most exciting examples of transit-oriented development in the U.S. yet when vocal longtime residents fear they’re losing the town they knew and loved (even if it had become somewhat frayed in places before the recent burst of redevelopment)?

The physical and psychological context in Evanston is fascinating (read my first posting on the topic for more thoughts and images on Evanston now). The upside of the downtown’s boom is undeniable – needed tax-base growth, renewed vibrancy, and reduced personal contributions to global climate change through transit commutes and easy walks or bicycle trips to grocery stores, shops, schools, movies and other amenities. But it’s also easy to understand the fear among longtime Evanstonians that the hot market for transit-connected development is getting out ahead of the city’s ability to coordinate growth, that all the new projects approved independently may not collectively improve the livability of their city in the long run, or may even detract from it in certain ways.

Like other new urbanist charrettes, the downtown Evanston urban design charrette led by architect Kevin Klinkenberg and his team from 180 Degree Studio gave these very issues plenty of concentrated attention — in this case five full days, each getting underway before 9 a.m. and winding up past 9 p.m. In typical charrette fashion, the final workday ended well after midnight, leaving a shortened night of sleep before the Saturday morning final presentation (July 21).

Charrette teams pay close attention to a range of factors that affect development – architecture, public space design, street and sidewalk design, zoning codes and infrastucture capacity to name just a few. With sketchpad in hand, they work with a full range of stakeholders. By the time of the final presentation, Klinkenberg knew the streets and blocks in downtown Evanston as well as most of the locals. An episode near the outset of the final presentation reinforced this point. Klinkenberg showed a map of downtown with areas designated according to their context (seen at right). Some were marked as traditional areas where preserving existing character would be a priority, others were designated as transitional areas where new development would be handled carefully, and the last area was the urban core which would be most welcoming to new development. Good, I thought, this town needs this kind of sensible approach to balancing the accommodation of new development and preservation of existing character.

Only, I was wrong. The map was the city planning department’s existing map. Within seconds, Klinkenberg unveiled a second map, in which the number of context zones had “exploded” (his term) from three to 11. There were various residential edges, western and southern gateway areas, a central core as well as east core, west core and other areas. The amount of nuance involved in planning in Evanston had apparently expanded almost exponentially.

As he went along, Klinkenberg’s grasp of the details helped establish trust with an audience whose members had been wary early in the week. While surely no stranger to the perspective of city officials and real estate developers, standing at the front of the room during the final presentation, he spent most of his time speaking in a very specific way about how regular people experience downtown Evanston and how they may experience it in the future if they’re lucky enough to see plans developed at the charrette become reality. Locals saw someone who could see things from their point of view, and pursue goals and strategies designed to improve how the city feels and operates from that perspective.

So if thorough and thoughtful attention to the shared experience of the public realm is a major part of what gives new urbanist charrettes such great potential for achieving shared community visions (where other approaches often falter), here is another key component of that success: convincing images of that vision created in real time, practically before participants’ eyes. Whether the medium is hand-drawn ink-and-watercolor renderings or high-tech 3-D animations or both, every good charrette team has plenty of design talent ready to consider plans carefully and produce drawings efficiently (see team at right in storefront). And the drawings aren’t just generic prototypes of future development; they are specific places within the city brought to life in new ways.

In Evanston, the flurry of images helped to reinforce a set of planning goals designed to bridge the diverse interests of residents, developers and city officials: more intimacy, improved public amenities, an improved thoughtful new construction, and better rules for development.

Instead of reviewing in any depth how the charrette turned these goals into design and development strategies (that’s a whole additional discussion), here is something more succinct but still revealing – images from the charrette showing how Evanston can be transformed in a positive way through enhanced attention to the public realm and the right kind of new development shaped by improved rules.


In a town concerned about the recent supersizing of its new developments, Klinkenberg’s first topic was how to bring more intimacy to the downtown experience and his first example involved making the most of some of the smallest spaces in the downtown – its alleys (see image at right). Other called for bringing more buildings to the perimeter of a block at Benson and Emerson streets to create an enlivened street edge and a captivating interior courtyard and bringing storefront and sidewalk art vendors to a space on Orrington Street that Klinkenberg described as a “classic design for a plaza that never gets used” (see current and proposed image at right). Though the plans for privately owned property were an aspect of the charrette that were greeted with skepticism by at least one audience members, Klinkenberg acknowledged the challenge and said that through cajoling and “arm-twisting” city officials can convince owners of private property to reinvest in the public realm (and potentially build value and improve their property’s economic performance at the same time).

    Fountain Square

Fountain Square should be one of downtown Evanston’s signature spaces. It anchors an important five-points intersection, where new and old mixed-use buildings have the potentioal to create a pleasant sense of enclosure. But the space itself is a mess, a collection of bulky octagonal fountain basins that are currently bone dry. Charrette focus groups revealed that people want the square to be “better and bigger,” Klinkenberg reported, and his design team obliged. They even showed they weren’t afraid to take away development in important places like this square, even though they generally argued that thoughtful new development is necessary to help the city renew itself. As one of the strategies for improving public amenities, they noted that removing the building that currently hovers over the square’s north edge and completely redesigning the space would create a more dramatic and satisfying space, as depicted in the image at right with obelisks (actually an image capture from a fly-around animation that I’ve now posted below).

In another proposal to improve public amenities, the design team created plans to make better use of a small green space adjacent to the Optima Horizon tower, a space Klinkenberg noted that “not everybody knows is even there.” As seen in photos at right, the space currently has a somewhat haphazard placement of landscape elements – a pathway that seems to lead toward a church steeple instead ends in a parking space. The charrette produced two plans – one modest, another that more aggressively replaces a surface parking lot – to turn this overlooked space into a memorable urban experience.

    Tower Design

The two renderings of tower designs shown at right are from animations used to show how the towers that have achieved such market success in Evanston (and enabled new residents to live in ways that result in significantly reduced transportation-related energy use and greenhouse gas emissions) can either overpower sidewalk-level urban experience or reinforce the proper sense of scale at the sidewalk, while having the bulk of the tower pull back and recede from view.

On the issue of additional development, Klinkenberg said that the city was unfinished. “There’s a notion of filling in missing teeth. There are some streets that need to be finished.” He showed a map proposing that new development in certain parts of the core could be 15 to 30 stories in height, but reassured residents that existing buildings with staying power such as libraries, police stations and other government buildings would help ensure that downtown not change too radically. And buildings couldn’t go higher than 30 stories, he said, because the local fire department isn’t equipped to fight fires any higher than that.

After the presentation, the first questions were about details of certain plans. One speaker asked for more emphasis on bicycle travel and amenities. But then one resident arose to question the whole enterprise: “When do you just put a cap on development and say, that’s it – enough is enough?” he implored. On another day, the room might have erupted with sympathetic applause, but this morning only two or three clapped in agreement. With some fearing that Evanston was becoming too urban, Klinkenberg and his team from Kansas City-based 180 Degrees Studio helped them begin to understand that what they mostly feared was the wrong kind of urban development. The right kind of urban development can actually give them more of the urban town they love.

Here's how local resident Paul Barker described the charrette experience to Patrick Temple-West in the Chicago Methods Reporter:
“I was expecting a fight but everyone was cooperative,” said... Barker, an Evanston resident who lives on Oakton Street and attended the Saturday presentation. “The basic feeling of residents is that they don’t like the idea of being sold out to developers. This is the opposite. We get to have our say.”

Read more local coverage at evanstonnow.com and view the entire slideshow from the final presentation and more about the larger downtown planning project. View 3-D animations of proposals for Fountain Square and two comparative tower designs by clicking on the attachment links just below this text.

fountainsquare1.avi1.52 MB
15setback.avi5.8 MB


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