Evanston aldermen attempted to broker a truce Tuesday between Northwestern University and a group of residents who oppose the university’s proposal to build a $32 million, seven-story visitor center and parking garage at the south end of campus.
Aldermen voted 6-1 at Tuesday’s city council meeting to approve an agreement with Northwestern allowing the university build a fire lane and bike path for the proposed building on a strip of public, lakefront property just north of Clark Street Beach.
Under the original agreement, the city would lease the strip of land to Northwestern for $1 a year over 75 years. However, Ald. Jane Grover (7th ward) proposed a new, amended agreement without a formal lease, in which Northwestern would shoulder not just the cost of constructing the path but also the cost of maintaining it.
“The issue tonight is the relocation of the lakefront bike path and fire lane to serve this building and also to serve Evanston residents, who have told me in very clear terms that they value and they want and they need continuation of the lakefront bike path,” Grover said at the meeting. “I don’t think that we need to actually lease the property to Northwestern University.”
Under the agreement proposed by Grover and agreed upon by a majority of council members, Northwestern will not only be responsible for constructing the fire lane and bike path, but will also pay $10,000 per year to the city for 25 years to allow city crews to conduct landscaping and maintenance of the path.
Ald. Jud Fiske (1st ward) was the only council member to vote against the proposal. Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th ward) recused herself, because she is director of corporate relations at Northwestern University, while Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd Ward) could not attend the meeting because she was sick. At past meetings, Wynne has said she has concerns about the proposed building and its affect on lakefront wildlife.
The building’s construction has already created controversy between council members and residents, when aldermen voted in late October to overturn the preservation commission’s denial of a certificate of appropriateness for the building. Preservation commission members said they believed the steel and glass building did not fit in with the design of other nearby buildings, and suggested that the university move it farther back onto Northwestern property so that no city land was required for construction. A certificate of appropriateness is required for construction on a lot of record containing landmark buildings, and the visitor center would be located on such a lot.
Fiske, who also voted against overturning the preservation commission’s ruling, said she opposed the agreement to let Northwestern use lakefront property because she wanted to protect the habitat on the small strip of land by Clark Street Beach.
“While it sounds very friendly to be building a bicycle path and a pedestrian path, what we’re really building is a fire lane to support the university’s new parking garage,” Fiske said. “What we’re really doing is … destroying natural area.”
Fiske said she was not satisfied with Grover’s amendment to the agreement, which stipulates that Northwestern should pay for maintenance costs.
“$10,000 a year is not enough,” she said, noting that Northwestern University has an endowment of roughly $7 billion. Fiske said she was concerned not only about the destruction of a natural habitat but also the view residents would have of the building from Clark Street Beach.
“The unimproved side, which is totally concrete, which is open like any parking deck you would see on an alley in downtown Evanston, that’s the part that faces the beach,” she said. “I don’t think that’s respectful to the citizens of Evanston.”
Several residents said that they, too, believe the visitor center and parking garage does not belong on lakefront property. Roughly a dozen people spoke against the proposed visitor center during public comment on Tuesday night, citing concerns about the building’s appearance, the use of public property to build a fire lane and the potential affects on wildlife. One resident even brought copies of The Lorax and The Great Kapok Tree—two books that teach environmentalism to children—to read to council members, underscoring her concerns that the path would destroy precious lakefront habitat.
“I’m saddened at the prospect that the city council is willing to sell out Lake Michigan,” said resident Lois Samuels. “Do you really want to be the city council that sold Lake Michigan in exchange for a parking structure?”
Fellow resident Karen Strauss said she had lived two blocks from the lakefront in Evanston for almost two decades, and took walks past Clark Street beach nearly every day during the summer. She said she particularly enjoyed watching birds and wildlife in the small triangle of land that would be converted into a bike path and fire lane.
“I have seen a pair of red foxes. I have seen raccoon, I have seen possums, as well as an extraordinary variety of birdlife,” Strauss said. “That ecosystem will be endangered, it will probably vanish if you go forward with that plan.”
Matt Mirapaul, meanwhile, suggested that Northwestern University should move the building further back onto its campus—an idea that Northwestern officials have said is not possible. Mirapaul, however, said he believed that Northwestern simply didn’t want to move the new parking garage and visitor center any closer to the new school of music it is also building just to the north.
“Why should Northwestern University sully its showcase when it can get aldermen to ravage the lakefront forever?” he asked the council. “It’s time to stop drinking the purple Kool-Aid and start serving Evanston.”
Northwestern University has said it plans to demolish part of the existing two-story parking garage at the south end of campus and replace it with a green space sloping down to the lake. Officials expect construction to begin this summer and last until early 2014.