21 Aug 2014
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Council May Vote On Northwestern Visitor Center Monday

Monday’s agenda includes a vote on a lease agreement between the city and Northwestern that would allow construction of an 81-foot visitor center that’s drawn significant opposition.

Council May Vote On Northwestern Visitor Center Monday

Evanston aldermen could vote Monday on a lease agreement that would allow construction of a controversial new visitor center and parking garage at the southern tip of the Northwestern University campus. 

Planned for 1841 Sheridan Road, the proposed building is 81 feet at its highest point and would contain a visitor center with auditorium, offices and reception area as well as a seven-story, 435-car parking garage, according to city documents. If the city council approves an ordinance scheduled on Monday night’s agenda, Northwestern University will be able to enter into 75-year lease with the city for $1 a year in order to build a fire lane and public bike path on city land east of the building.

Two weeks ago, city council members gave Northwestern the go-ahead for construction by overruling the preservation commission, which had denied the university a city certificate of appropriateness required to build on the historic lot. Preservation commission members said they denied the certificate because they believe the glass-front building would look out of place next to Fisk Hall, a brick building designed by Daniel Burnham in the late 1800s. Commission members also said the new building would destroy too much lakefront land.

Related: Council OK's Northwestern University Visitor Center

Aldermen voted 6-2 to repeal the preservation commission’s denial of a certificate of appropriateness, with aldermen Judy Fiske (1st ward) and Melissa Wynne (2nd ward) voting no. Ald. Coleen Burrus, (9th ward) recused herself because she is director of corporate relations at Northwestern University.

Aldermen Jane Grover (7th ward) and Donald Wilson (4th ward), who voted in favor of the motion, both said they believed Northwestern had satisfied community concerns about making the building bird-friendly, and that a new lakefront path Northwestern plans to create on city land around the visitorcenter will be a boon to the community.

The status of the lakefront path is scheduled for a vote on Monday, when aldermen consider an ordinance that would allow Northwestern University to enter into an agreement with the city to lease public land to the east of the building for $1 a year for 75 years. The university would use that land to create fire lane for access to the visitor center, as required by the Evanston Fire Department, and to continue the lakefront bike path for bikers, walkers and joggers. 

Some neighbors of the proposed building, however, say they’re still not satisfied with the proposed agreement with Northwestern University—or the building’s construction, for that matter.

Matt Mirapaul, who lives about a block from the site of the proposed parking garage on Judson Avenue, said he has two concerns: protecting the lakefront as a natural resource, and protecting the city’s bottom line. 

“The budget-strapped city should be getting hundreds of thousand dollars a year in return,” he said. 

The proposed lease agreement strikes him as particularly offensive, he said, given that some city council members recently opposed a proposed agreement with the Evanston Baseball and Softball Association to lease the vacant recycling center for $1 a year to create a nonprofit space for indoor sports leagues.

“Northwestern University is a financially viable institution, and it stands to generate significant revenue from spaces in the parking deck,” Mirapaul wrote in a letter to neighbors.   

Ald. Judy Fiske, who voted to uphold the preservation commission’s denial of a certificate of appropriateness, said she continued to have questions about the proposed lease agreement going into Monday’s meeting.

“If we said no to the Evanston Baseball and Softball Association when they wanted to lease the recycling center for $1 per year and fix it up for Evanston youth…why aren’t we doing the same thing for Northwestern University, especially when it involves the destruction of wildlife habitat?,” Fiske told Patch.

While Northwestern associate VP of facilities management Ron Nayler described the bike path as a boon to Evanston residents at a council meeting two weeks ago, Fiske said she believed that by law, Northwestern University had to allow residents unrestricted access to the lakefront, since the property is public land. She cited a Supreme Court case from the 1980s, where a justice ruled that it would be a violation of the public trust for the city of Chicago to transfer lakefront property to Loyola University for construction of a new campus and lakefront path. 

 “There is an obligation on the part of the university,” she said. “It’s not a gift, it’s a requirement.” 

Given that Northwestern University asked the city of Evanston to pay fair market value to lease a parking lot for Trader Joe’s, Fiske said that when the coin was flipped, the city should ask Northwestern for fair market value for the lakefront property. 

“I just can’t support $1 a year,” she said, adding that she believed the city had a duty to protect the lakefront property, which is an active flyway for migratory birds. Ideally, Fiske said, Northwestern University would move the building farther north on its campus, so no city land would be required for construction.

But Nayler has said that the university cannot move the building because there is a parking deck behind the proposed site.

“We’ve moved it as far north as we can into campus,” he said at the city council meeting Oct. 23. “We don’t have any further room to move.”  

Ald. Jane Grover, whose ward includes the proposed building, said she will continue to support Northwestern’s proposal, as she did when she voted to overturn the preservation commission’s denial of a certificate of appropriateness. The lease of $1 per year for 75 years seemed fair to her, she said. 

“It’s a long-term lease for not very much, but I don’t think the university’s going to be a primary user of [the path],” she said. “I think the primary user’s going to be everybody else in Evanston.” 

Grover, who enjoys bird-watching herself, said she believed the university had made changes to the proposed building that would address concerns about migratory birds. Architects moved the landscaping farther from the building so that the trees weren’t located right next to it, making it less likely for birds to fly into the glass, she said. Architects also changed the exterior glass to a type of scratched glass that, studies show, is supposed to be more effective at deterring birds. 

“The remaining issue is the routing of the bike path fire lane,” Grover said. “I think we can all agree that we want the bike path fire lane, and the question is how can we minimize what it will require, or its affect upon that local landscape.”

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