ELMHURST – One of the most inscrutable, yet important, aspects of local government is the arcane art of zoning.
While the mere appearance of the word “zoning” might make many people want to zone out and move on to the next topic, the July 10 meeting of the Elmhurst City Council’s Development, Planning and Zoning Committee zeroed in on how zoning can affect the quality of life in a neighborhood, especially those adjacent to downtown areas.
Cities use zoning to predetermine what kinds of structures and business will go in which areas. They don’t want parking garages in the middle of residential neighborhoods, or new homes going up in downtown lots. Developers who make a good case for an exception can be granted a variance to deviate from zoning rules, but they have to jump through a lot of hoops to do so.
“Over the last couple of decades, we keep getting the same [variance] requests – building height, density, setbacks and parking – and we keep approving them.”
City staff members and officials in Elmhurst want to revamp the city’s zoning, in part because in recent years they’ve had a lot of developers seeking variances. The city has come to the conclusion that the current zoning map for the downtown area is too convoluted and out-of-date, and so an effort has been underway for a few months to put together a new map. The updated map is intended to give developers better guidance so that fewer variances will be requested, and to give residents a better idea of what the city sees as the ideal uses for various blocks downtown.
“Over the last couple of decades, we keep getting the same [variance] requests – building height, density, setbacks and parking – and we keep approving them,” said Assistant City Manager Michael Kopp. “So [we decided], let’s take a look at our zoning, our downtown plan, and say, does this still meet what the demands are for the market and for the city of Elmhurst?”
At the July 10 DPZ meeting, the three aldermen on the committee and Mayor Steven Morley were attempting to nail down the final few points of contention in the proposed new zoning map before it moves on to the full City Council. Having already been through public hearings, staff review and input from various other corners, the proposal is already much revised from its first unveiling a few months back.
The key points of contention were three areas where the downtown zones butt up against residential neighborhoods. In one case, a small parcel near the downtown Jewel grocery store, at the southwest corner of Elmhurst Avenue and Haven Road, was omitted from the new “Central Business Outer Core District” zone based on feedback from residents in that area.
“From a strictly zoning standpoint, I think it stands out like a sore thumb.”
Members of the committee wondered if those residents were aware that the parcel, which currently is occupied by an apartment building, already is eligible to be redeveloped to a more enclosed structure under existing zoning laws. Thus, including it in the new zoning scheme might not change the chances that residents will lose the “park-like” nature of the current development. Furthermore, Alderman Mark Mulliner and the mayor were concerned that if some future developer wanted to put together a large project taking the entirety of the block that includes the Jewel, having that one parcel carved out might be a significant impediment.
“If that’s left as is, that is a hurdle, for someone to come in and redevelop that whole block,” Mayor Morley said. “From a strictly zoning standpoint, I think it stands out like a sore thumb.”
Assistant City Manager Michael Kopp and Zoning Administrator Than Werner recalled from the public hearings on the zoning changes that the height of potential new development wasn’t the greatest concern they heard from residents – that, instead, it was the type of development, commercial vs. residential, that had them worried, along with the resulting increase in traffic from a commercial development. Alderman Noel Talluto agreed, saying that when she visited that neighborhood, the presence of the Jewel had been successfully mitigated to give a very residential feel, and that new commercial development on the adjacent property might risk ruining that feel.
“When you traverse that area, it does feel very residential on that corner,” Talluto said.
The other points of concern proceeded along similar lines as the members of the committee worked to balance the needs of homeowners and developers while providing clarity for all. DPZ Chairman Michael Honquest emphasized that agreement within the committee was essential, because any dissent in their final report might lead to even greater rancor once the report reached the full City Council. Ultimately, the committee’s recommendations were advanced unanimously, with Mulliner’s assent coming begrudgingly as he agreed to stifle his concerns, particularly about the potential for commercial development along Park Avenue in the stretch that currently is home to the U.S. Post Office.
The proposed changes are set to be considered at the July 17 City Council meeting.