On Not Jumping to Conclusions: What Strong Towns Has Meant For Me

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Brian O'Neill is a Strong Towns member who lives in Evanston, IL. In this article, he explains how Strong Towns gave him an open mind and a critical eye with which to view development in his town.

Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill

My wife and I moved to Evanston, Illinois about three years ago. She had lived in Evanston when we started dating, and wanted to get back to where it was more quiet and leafy. While I was reluctant to leave Chicago, Evanston seemed to be the best spot for us: our apartment was mere blocks from the L and the Metra trains, and we could walk everywhere. There were more bars and restaurants in walking distance than there were in our extremely walkable Chicago neighborhood.

But really, there was only one pub, and that is Tommy Nevin’s. It’s the only place you can just go for a pint. So when I heard that there was a proposal to build a new mixed-use multi-family glass-and-steel building where Nevin’s sits, my initial reaction was one of sadness and frustration. But some background is needed.

Evanston had in many ways a stereotypical, even quintessential second half of the century. It boomed due to Chicago, but also because it carved out its own identity. It had a thriving downtown, until, of course, the malls opened. When I was growing up in the 80s, Evanston was partly still rich (by the lake) and very poor, with a fairly barren downtown. (There are a lot of quirks to Evanston’s history and development, especially regarding race, but to demonstrate how they bear on this topic would be to write a book.)

Then Evanston revitalized. It took advantage of its natural beauty and its proximity to multiple rail lines to build hub-oriented development, and an exceptionally walkable downtown with some auxiliary neighborhoods along Dempster and Main that have their own personalities. With that, of course, came people like us, which spurred the need for more development.

New condos shot up and more are on the way. There are at least two 10-story developments in different stages right now, with another coming up downtown. And then there is this proposed one, 16 stories on the relatively barren south edge of downtown, hard against the tracks. The proposal is for, as the dogged Bill Smith of Evanston Now explains, “first-floor commercial, 298 dwelling units and 192 parking spaces.”

So, pretty standard mixed-use stuff. But the reaction my wife and I both had, even while being pretty pro-development, was “not Tommy Nevin’s!” Because while the owners actually support the development and say they’ll find another space, Nevin’s was unique in a city of gastropubs and farm-to-table chef-driven joints (which are great!). Several large rooms for gathering (in the back room I’ve thrown a surprise 30th for my wife and had voter registrar trainings), Irish music, a huge outdoor patio, a wood and oak motif—the whole works.

Rendering of the proposed development in Evanston, courtesy of Brian O'Neill

Rendering of the proposed development in Evanston, courtesy of Brian O'Neill

But thanks to Strong Towns, I knew that my knee-jerk reaction was just that. So in early May I went to the town meeting where a group of about 100 residents talked with the developers, business owners, and alderman.

I would say that sentiment was pretty evenly split. There was worry about issues like creating a wind tunnel, overcrowding, and traffic in and out of the parking garage. There was concern about Evanston losing its charm and becoming just another gormless glass suburb. But, on the other hand, it is a fairly dead zone, and is already anchored by two largely charmless buildings, an office building and an old hotel, both of which could possibly be called “a little brutal” by Ceausescu's architect.

Reading Strong Towns helped me understand more about the natural flow of cities, the relation that buildings have to traffic, and the way that development can help a city remain financially secure if done correctly. I was able to better sympathize with the owners of nearby businesses who said that it would increase foot traffic, while still being able to see how the block would be livable and walkable. I had more admiration for the design, which let the corner flow around it at a riverine angle.

But I’m not sold yet, because while Strong Towns is analytically rigorous, it isn’t also development-deterministic. Putting up a new building isn’t always successful. Evanston only has a 5% retail vacancy rate right now, but might a new building make that go up? And what are the effects of that? If there are too many tall buildings blocking out the Lake Michigan-risen sun every morning, what impact will that have on shopping? And if traffic gets too choked, will a still-highly-walkable downtown become unpleasant to do so? These are the kind of questions that get debated every day, as Strong Towns' amazing contributors try to understand what it means to be invested, in every sense, in infrastructure.

The Design and Review Committee meeting still isn’t scheduled, and after that, the proposal will go to the Plan Commission, and then to City Council. The whole shebang could last at least six months. I hope they consider everything Strong Towns taught me. I hope that they also consider the notion that there is something to a low-slung pub where generations have gathered. Cities need smart and strong development to be sustained, but they also need something to sustain. Rational consideration of what it means to live in a built environment, colliding with other humans has been Strong Town’s gift to me.

Strong Towns uses rigorous analysis and critical thinking to understand some of the most challenging problems our nation faces—the rising cost of housing, the political polarization of our nation, the economic struggles and debt that hundreds of towns are facing. If you value our approach, please support our mission by becoming a member today.

(Top photo of Strong Towns' 2017 Transportation Summit, by Rachel Quednau)

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