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Council Green-Lights Northwestern Visitor Center/Parking Garage

Despite opposition from several residents to a seven-story building proposed for the south end of campus, Evanston aldermen approved an agreement with Northwestern by a 6-1 vote.

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 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.

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“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. 

millie November 15, 2012 at 02:03 AM
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. AND THE TAXPAYERS WILL PAY THE DIFFERANCE. WE CAN'T GET THE GRASS CUT AND WEEDS PULLED IN PARKS BUT WE WILL DO IT FOR NORTHWESTERN.
Jersey Girl November 15, 2012 at 03:06 AM
There is nothing wrong with good town/gown relations. We have many common interests and should partner wherever possible. It also sounds like Northwestern needs a showy visitor's center to be competitive. However, that does not mean in my opinion that Northwestern should build whatever it deems to be appropriate in complete disagreement with the town's preservation commitee as overturned by a vapid city council. My alderman luckily was sick and did not vote but I'm sure she would have opposed this extremely structure so close to the lakeshore. It will extensively change the feel of the already busy pedestrian and beach/nature area and the view from Sheridan road and the walking paths. As for those commentors who commend Northwestern for its beach access for residents - there really isn't any. The university's beach is closed to residents and the walking path is it. Perhaps this could be remedied by a town/gown sports structure that would enable Evanston residents to actually be able to play sports and swim in a public forum in town instead of having to go to almost any other suburb to get the same. This kind of low cost sport access is critical for all incomes in our community.
Tom O'Brien November 15, 2012 at 04:46 AM
It turns out there is a pretty good comparable for the parcel the city has agreed to lease to NU for this project. Here is a .25 acre, vacant lakefront lot for sale in Evanston where Greenwood St. hits the beach. http://www.trulia.com/property/3096508268-110-Greenwood-St-Evanston-IL-60201 The price on this lot is $1.8 mm. That means the FMV for the parcel in this NU transaction is somewhere between $2.4 MM and $3.6 MM. Maybe somebody better at finance than me can tell me what the annual lease would be on a property of that value? My guess is that it is a minimum of $100k/year - which means the city is collecting dimes instead of dollars on this lease. TO'B
Kevin O'Connor November 16, 2012 at 05:38 PM
A solvent, wealthy,heavily endowed non-profit like N.U. will not save our insolvent, bankrupt City of Evanston as some of our ethically challenged and delusional elected officials publicly pretend. Neither will Trader Joe's. Only the peasants (formerly known as citizens/residents) of our City can do it by voting in historic numbers and/or running for office with out being beholden to the only political party ie: Mayor Tisdahl's beloved "Evanston Machine", in Evanston. Our Mayor publicly proclaimed her pride in her "Machine" in the last election. The puppet masters behind the curtain are Schakowsky, Durbin, Madigan and of course our own Cook County Commisioner Suffredin. While an alderman of the 7th Ward, Mayor Tisdahl had no use for N. U., but now with Evanston bankrupt, the City needs the permit fees from N.U.'s construction, the peasants be damned. Like Trader Joe's, the attempt to close Chandler Newberger, the attempt to give the Jans golf course to N. U., and the quiet approval of N.U. security to patrol non-University properties and write taxpaying citizens traffic tickets, these deals are cut behind wealthy closed doors.Our thin skinned, incompetent Council of fake progressives and their flunkies do not like light shined upon their secret deals and unfortunately in the home of the Medill School of Journalism most alleged journalists value ad revenue more than watchdog journalism. One would have more respect for honest scoundrels than this crowd. Let's throw 'em out!
edward haider November 25, 2012 at 04:44 PM
So let's stop this bullshit! This is simply one more BIG Business (NU) taking what it wants. A trend around our faire country. This structure they plan to build is a disgusting bohemoth of an eyesore! NU has ENOUGH! The entire campus already screams WeLcOmE. Let us unite and stop this travisty. Saying that Nature has a way of coming back, is no different than that idiot saying there is such an act as "legitimate rape"! ECANUVS=Evanston Citizen's Against NU Visitor Center!!!!! Let's STOP THIS MESS.

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