As Winnetka seeks to promote more retail in its downtown areas, council members are considering how the village’s zoning laws may be affecting the vibrancy of its business districts.
In particular, at a March 13 study session the trustees examined the C-2 Overlay Zoning District that was originally established in 1987 to encourage a cluster of retail on the ground floor of commercial buildings and maximize foot traffic. According to a brief history provided by Brian Norkus, assistant director of community development, the loss of the department store Carson Pirie Scott to a real estate office, prompted the village to pass overlay zoning in the Elm Street and Hubbard Woods business districts at that time.
The overlay district essentially limits certain non-retail uses on the ground floor of buildings, such as real estate offices, medical or dental offices and banks. Certain service-oriented businesses require a special use permit to open on the ground floor, which the village council evaluates on a case-by-case basis.
While the overlay zoning laws have been amended over time to limit their impact — the boundaries have been modified, and the zoning no longer covers the entire ground floor but only storefronts 50 feet from the street — some residents and trustees worry that the zoning laws may be hurting more than helping the vibrancy of the downtown areas.
In 2013 the Urban Land Institute recommended in its final report that the village should consider either eliminating or revising the boundaries of the overlay district, or allow certain services to open by right such as fitness and yoga, financial planning, educational services and medical offices. In 2015, the village streamlined the special use permitting process to make it more business-friendly.
In early January, the issue of the overlay district came up when the village council approved a special use permit for an orthodontist practice to open in Hubbard Woods, the Chicago Tribune reported. At that time, trustees discussed re-examining the zoning laws, since the overlay district is an issue that repeatedly comes up before the council.
At the March 13 study session, Norkus and Director of Community Development David Schoon, shared the approaches of similar communities in the Chicago area. For example, they pointed to Deerfield and Glencoe where certain non-retail uses are limited to the upper floors of buildings in the commercial areas.
While Trustee Kristin Ziv unequivocally expressed her support for eliminating or modifying the overlay district, other council members were interested in studying the issue further.
“We probably should have followed Urban Land Institute’s recommendations five years ago,” Ziv said.
But Trustee Scott Myers questioned whether the special use permitting process was too subjective, while Trustee Bob Dearborn asked to see further financial analysis on how the tax base is impacted by retail, service businesses and empty storefronts.
During the public comment period, Terry Dason, executive director of the Winnetka-Northfield Chamber of Commerce, urged council members to encourage more restaurants that could lead to increased foot traffic, pointing to success in Evanston and Wilmette.
“We want foot traffic in the village. We need that for the businesses here that are retail,” Dason said. She also noted that the business community would like to see fewer storefronts with banks, real estate office or nail salons.
Trustee Ziv expressed concern that focusing on retail was not in line with market realities, as more and more retail stores close across the nation in response to internet competition. “Retail is on the way out. I hate to tell everybody,” Trustee Ziv said.
But Trustee Myers expressed concern about eliminating all special use requirements, noting that other communities nearby still maintain some limitations.
The village council is still early in this process and plans to continue studying this issue in future meetings. The council directed staff to gather additional information and report back at a date to be determined, when there will be more conversation at the council level.