Letter to the Editor — Dear Winnetka Plan Commissioners: The former Fell property proposal is, at this time, the single most important redevelopment project in Winnetka. Its location, magnitude and prominence in the East Elm commercial district impacts the entire area as well as sets an example for future redevelopment of larger parcels of commercial property. Your review and recommendations will be crucial in shaping our downtown area for years to come.
I support redevelopment of underutilized commercial properties and supported the final approval of the New Trier Partners project, a 31-unit, 4-story, 49.5′ (at its highest point) mixed-use redevelopment with a 4th-floor setback, underground parking and English Tudor flair (the prevalent architectural style) with appropriate scale, massing, articulation and transitional zones adjacent to residential areas. Redevelopment that is complementary and consistent with the character of the business district within which it is located will, I hope, energize existing merchants and property owners, increase sales and property tax revenue to the Village, support the needs of residents and visitors, and encourage renovation of other underutilized properties. However, even in the more intensely developed commercial West Elm, when discussing redevelopment of the post office site, the direction is: less is more, modest-sized, blend with adjacent architecture and scale. (Village Council Resolution, R-22-2008, A Resolution Expressing Planning and Development Principles for the Post Office Site.)
As we had hoped, the ULI TAP process jump-started the commercial district conversation. However we were not looking to urbanize our historic, pedestrian-scaled shopping districts but to customize recommendations that would preserve and enhance Winnetka’s special charm and character while providing a revitalized environment.
I do not support this 7-story proposal and my voice is certainly not the only one. There is a chorus in the community speaking up – Winnetkans who care deeply and passionately about the community as do I. Last month, the Winnetka Caucus surveyed the community. A remarkable 65% were against a 7-story structure. The over 300 residents who opposed 7-stories were then asked about lesser stories. The clear majority supported 3 or 4 stories (defined as 45′) and the third largest group said no to this massive structure altogether. All of the Caucus survey results and community comments (anonymous, but no less valid than the results and anonymous comments of the Council’s survey) are published on the Caucus website at: winnetkacaucus.org and circulated to the Council and to the Plan Commission as part of the public record.
At the February 17, 2015 Village Council meeting, the Council discussed the ULI-recommended commercial zoning changes of increased height (up to 4 stories and 45′), increased density and decreased parking requirements. Prior to adopting the changes, the community was adamantly assured that: 1) the 45′ height limitation would not be a starting point for negotiating upwards on any redevelopment project, Planned Development or otherwise, 2) preserving historic character was the number one priority (straight from the Village Council’s survey), and 3) the increased density and relaxed parking requirements do not apply to Planned Developments. The President went so far as to admonish the audience for belaboring those concerns and stated that he could cut off further public comment as these points had been thoroughly vetted (at the February 3rd Council meeting and previous study session.)
Now imagine the disbelief and distrust when the developer, in presenting its 7-story, 120-unit proposal states that height just went up to 45′ (implying that this is a point of negotiation) and that due to the Council’s February 17th adoption of increased density and decreased parking, this proposal is totally appropriate and there will be no negotiation. In addition, any added parking spaces will be subsidized by Village taxpayers. Parking is a concern due to the large deficit in East Elm. D’s Haute Dogs stated that it closed due to lack of parking for its customers. Shoppers want on-street parking near the stores they patronize. The underground parking contemplated here should be to move commuters out of parking spaces for shoppers and to support the needs of this massive building. Grants for commuter spaces should be explored.
The Village Council’s survey as well as past studies highlighted the lack of housing options for seniors who wish to downsize and stay in Winnetka, as well as for young families and professionals who may want to locate here. The Planned Development ordinance contemplates that any exception granted for density address these issues. Will there be an affordability component? Will there be different price points and deed restrictions? What about the financing component? No one wants a project started and left unfinished. The developer should be transparent to our community regarding affordability and financing.
A few more points learned from the New Trier Partners planned development process. A pre-application open house provided an opportunity for the community to comment before the developer filed its formal application. The developer then submitted a plan much more in keeping with Winnetka’s heritage, charm and character, and scaled to the East Elm neighborhood shopping district. After thorough vetting and negotiation the project received final approval. During public comment, all speakers identified themselves and their affiliations, whether as employees for the developer, realtors and others connected to the project, or with local groups such as the Winnetka Caucus. It is important to note who is connected to the project in some way, and who are residents interested in redevelopment in our community. At last week’s PC meeting, it appeared that a number of non-resident supporters (employees/friends/family, etc.) of the developer were in the audience who frequently applauded the presentation. Lastly, New Trier Partners provided a 3D model to scale as well as 3D computer-generated drawing with elevations of adjacent buildings in order to properly observe massing, bulk, proportions, tunnel effects, parking, traffic patterns, setbacks, loading/unloading areas, landscaping, open spaces and other issues relative to the neighborhood as a whole.
For Winnetka, such a massive redevelopment raises numerous issues and concerns. Thank you in advance for your due diligence and earnest effort to fulfill your obligations and responsibilities in keeping with our Comprehensive Plan and in service to our community. At the end of the day, I hope that we will have a redevelopment that we can all be proud of and is in keeping with our heritage as a “beautiful land.”
Thank you for your consideration,