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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. 

bvklaw November 13, 2012 at 09:52 PM
"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 constructing it." I assume you mean “also the cost of maintaining it”? (My students would say this came from the Department of Redundancy Department.)
jkerr November 13, 2012 at 10:54 PM
I'd like to know why the aldermen voted for this proposal. It would be helpful to understand their perspective.
millie November 13, 2012 at 11:03 PM
Ald. Jane Grover usually votes against what the people in her ward don't like
spencer November 13, 2012 at 11:09 PM
Very disappointing. The vote was not even close. Our are aldermen representing thier constituents' views?
Jennifer Fisher (Editor) November 13, 2012 at 11:09 PM
Thanks for catching that. It should say "but also the cost of maintaining it." I've just corrected the story.
Jennifer Fisher (Editor) November 13, 2012 at 11:18 PM
John, Ald. Don Wilson was the only aldermen who spoke extensively on the subject at the meeting who wasn't quoted in this story. Here's the gist of what he said: "I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this," he said, adding that he had spent some time at the lakefront visualizing where the visitor center would be on Monday. "If you go back to the '60s, Fiske Hall was lakefront property," he said. "There was a very, very unattractive parking lot. The sensitive ecosystem that we keep talking about didn’t exist, it was water. The lakefill essentially created the vast majority of this ecosystem." He said people would always be upset by the fact that Northwestern doesn’t pay taxes, but said the university was actually responsible for "a vast and dramatic and spectacular improvement in the shoreline." He noted that the proposal takes out a significant portion of the existing garage, and said, "To me, that’s an improvement." "If you look at the renderings, you look at the drawings, you look at the landscaping, I believe that this is going to be an improvement," he said. Additionally, he said, "nature has a way of finding its way back. You can’t stop that. This area has provided an opportunity for nature to kind of reclaim some of what’s been taken away, but this project doesn’t overly negatively impact that." He concluded by saying, "It’s not ideal, it’s not perfect, but I think it’s suitable and it’s appropriate."
Lori Keenan November 13, 2012 at 11:37 PM
I guess I'm somehow missing the "truce" that was brokered. To me, it looks like NU got their building and the residents lost... again. A seven story eyesore at the north end of Clark Street beach -- and we get... a path? To replace the path that they are eliminating? Isn't this the same NU that made the City BUY at market value the property for Trader Joe's to build a parking lot? Did they just give it to us and say we could maintain it? No, the City of Evanston paid full market value for the property. If Northwestern wants that property then they should pay for it. How is this any different than the group of Evanston residents who recently wanted to build an indoor sports facility at the old recycling center and the aldermen said no way? At least the residents would have benefited from having a sports facility for our kids. What's the benefit here, beyond the eyesore of a 7-story building on the lake adjacent to one of our beaches? Very disappointing, once again, that the aldermen don't consider the residents first. Bravo Judy Fiske for standing up for the residents of your ward! As one of the few aldermen who came to serve out of the grassroots citizenry it's good to know that you'll vote the way your constituents want. As for the rest of you... not so much. Politics as usual.
millie November 13, 2012 at 11:38 PM
sure they are
millie November 13, 2012 at 11:40 PM
ASK Ald. Jane Grover
Concerned Evanstonian November 14, 2012 at 12:57 PM
Agreed Lori. I am not surprised at all by the speed with which the decision was made nor the bias that was applied to it. It's time for the existing relationship this city has with NU to end. We, the residents of Evanston, continually pay for NU to snatch up some of the most precious resources we have and then return the favor with nothing but a swift kick. Shame on the city council for not representing their constituent's views on this and for not having the forethought to see the impact this will have on the landscape of Evanston. Once again, shortsighted and of no benefit to the taxpayers of this misled city.
Tom O'Brien November 14, 2012 at 02:43 PM
As a mere homeowner in Evanston, I am left to wonder why we even go through the motions of the preservation review board and the zoning committee. When I went through these two boards during a home improvement, I felt obligated to meet their concerns to get approval. Had I been denied it seems highly unlikely that I could have persuaded the City Council to overturn either decision. However, if one has economic power, like a billionaire wanting to subvert the meaning of the B&B Ordinance, or Northwestern University wanting to take over city owned lakefront property to build a 7 story visitor center and parking garage, it seems that they can pretty well ignore the normal process. Is this what Evanston has come to? Is this now a pay to play city? The stark and embarrassing contrast between the City's actions in the EBSA negotiation and the Northwestern deal put a fine point on the high level of hypocrisy now reigning in Evanston's City Council. (I'm not even going to get started on how this development makes a mockery of the glorious Lakefront Master Plan that the city spent >$250,000 and hundreds of staff and citizen hours developing a few years ago.) TO'B
Jan Ashton November 14, 2012 at 02:52 PM
I agree with everyone above; this is appalling news. I wouldn't sell my car without checking its Blue Book value. Did the council even get an assessment of the land's fair-market value and consider selling it to NU at that cost? Ever for a second, did they discuss selling the land rather than a laughable $1-a-year, 75-year lease? I'm embarrassed for our city and its misplaced emphasis on placating and coddling NU. Gee, so nice we can still walk on "their" path.
Kit Sullivan November 14, 2012 at 03:51 PM
This is typical of Evanston "politics" and the relationship between town and gown. The aldermen have sold out again. No surprise there. Just raise our property taxes a bit more, and if the homeowner can't pay, who cares? If they live on the lakefront, maybe they will have to donate their house to - Northwestern!
Bill Kelleher November 14, 2012 at 05:21 PM
I guess this is what is meant by "painting the town purple."
Jennifer Fisher (Editor) November 14, 2012 at 05:29 PM
Just curious -- does anyone view this as a positive development?
Debirag November 14, 2012 at 07:38 PM
I agree with all the above comments that find this decision appalling. I believe the City Council votes for business, i.e. all the visitors coming in from all over the country will support Evanston downtown business.
Jim Osburn November 14, 2012 at 08:07 PM
What a bunch of woosies! There is a big difference between cooperation and utter submission, our Aldermen need to to learn what it is. Besides posting on the internet, let's look up the number of our own alderman and place a few calls--strongly workded but not obscene nor physically threatening. Perhaps one can stop by their office and let them know that voters really exist. Then start getting together, discuss, locate who among us would be a better representative and promote them. Enough of this one-party system in Evanston!
John Brinkmann November 14, 2012 at 08:17 PM
can someone please pinpoint exact location for this structure???---will it only extend as far south as existing 2 story parking garage or also eliminate the NU sailing center???....I was under the impression it was to built on the site of the existing garage and nothing else---but if it cuts into the land where the sailing club is would be disastrous---as if the whole plan doesn't stink anyway---I'm in full agreement with many here that this structure will be a horrible eyesore and decimate the currently nice lakefront there
Tom O'Brien November 14, 2012 at 08:59 PM
John: This is NOT contained in the footprint of the current parking structure. The south end of it crosses over the existing bike/walking path and protrudes into the woods that are just south of the path. (That is why they need 1/2 acre of beachfront from the City.) TO'B
Tom O'Brien November 14, 2012 at 10:44 PM
Hard for me to see how building a 7 story parking garage/visitor center on the lakefront - so close that the city has to contribute 1/2 acre of lakefront property - can be seen as a positive in almost any light. NU could easily have placed it slightly East and North where there is a current 2 story structure and a surface parking lot. The worst part to me - and the part that betrays the City's "we'll do anything you need" posture with respect to NU is that they had to be embarrassed into asking for ANY money for the 1/2 acre of beachfront property that they intended to donate for $1/year to the project. (I think the agreed $10,000/year rate is a joke for a property that is easily worth $1.5 MM. Where can I lease a $1.5 MM property for $10,000/year?) This after NU insisted on market rates for the Trader Joe's property and the City insisted on market rates for the Recycling Center proposal put forth by the NOT FOR PROFIT Evanston Baseball & Softball Association. How else to explain it? Finally is the Lakefront Master Plan a joke? Is the Preservation Review Board a joke? Do we, the City of Evanston have any real standards about lakefront use? TO'B
Dickelle Fonda November 14, 2012 at 11:51 PM
After listening to an hour of impassioned pleas by Evanston residents urging our city council to NOT approve this request by NU, and then watching all but one member APPROVE it, I am left wondering where is representative democracy in Evanston? Not one resident spoke in favor of this proposal. Perhaps at election time in March there will be debates and discussion about what does it really mean to be "the peoples" representative on council!! I look forward to that debate.
Barbara Blades November 15, 2012 at 12:58 AM
NU haa been painting the town purple forever. It doesn't matter how residents feel or who's on the council.
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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