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Last week Northwestern University unveiled a draft framework plan to guide the next 50 years of development of its Evanston campus. Professor James Webster of the School of Communications, one of the faculty members who worked on the draft, told the RoundTable the plan is a “framework,” a “vision of the way the campus should be developed.”

The campus has generally been built out one building at a time, Prof. Webster said. Oftentimes, this “has resulted in structures that neither engage their surroundings nor take advantage of Northwestern’s greatest physical asset, its proximity to Lake Michigan,” says the planning document. Mr. Webster said if in the future the University were to decide to erect a new building, the plan would provide a framework in which to site it.

Sasaki Associates, the consultant, as well as University personnel who worked on the plan were cognizant of the limited space available to them, according to the document: The City has strict zoning laws, a preservation ordinance and a consent decree in place; the community resents the University’s purchase of more land and removing it from the tax rolls; and the state and federal environmental protection agencies have banned other institutions – most recently Loyola University of Chicago – from building farther into Lake Michigan.

Thus the plan relies on “strategic infill,” planned development of new buildings and the replacement and relocation of certain existing buildings, filling in open space (including four acres of the cooling pond in the lakefill and reconfiguring it) and realigning certain segments of the campus to create an ordered whole.

The recommended plan estimates a maximum of 6.2 million new gross square feet at full build-out – a net gain of about 5 million gross square feet, taking into account demolition of existing structures.

Technology and science will take up most of the north end of the campus, while arts and sciences will primarily be located at the south end, Prof. Webster said. With parking on the perimeters and pedestrian entrances along Sheridan Road from Noyes Street, Foster Street, Garrett Place and Library Place, the interior of the campus will be walkable and bikeable by both Northwesterners and Evanstonians. “I think of the campus as an asset,” Mr. Webster said. “We want to make it a more beautiful place, a more inviting place to the Northwestern University community and the Evanston community.”

City-University Interface

Most of the points where the University interfaces with the City will change. These include both sides of Sheridan Road from Emerson north to Lincoln Street; Orrington Avenue between Emerson and Foster streets; the Clark Street area between Hinman and Sherman; and the south end of the lakefill, which traditionally the University said was used by the people of Evanston as a public park.

The plan also mentions the University-owned spaces now occupied by Roycemore School, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary: “These parcels all have future development potential for University uses,” according to the plan.

Sheridan Road: On the east side of Sheridan Road, “the campus would benefit from aesthetic developments that identify it more strongly as a University space.” Administrative offices would eventually be moved from Clark Street (the Rebecca Crown Center) to buildings on the west side of Sheridan Road, according to the long-term plan.

It also envisions the demolition of the Foster-Walker residence hall on Orrington Avenue, which could trigger two bold moves: Subject to obtaining required approval of the City’s Preservation Commission, Northwestern could relocate existing houses from the 1900 block of Sheridan Road to Orrington Avenue, restoring the residential neighborhood character of Orrington. This would provide an opportunity for NU to develop the 1900 block of Sheridan Road for administrative functions, such as admissions and student services.

Other parcels on the west side of Sheridan Road, between Foster and Lincoln streets, could then accommodate other administrative uses, with up to 10 new 45-foot high buildings.

Clark Street Corridor: The plan envisions a new mixed-use residential district for the southwestern area of the campus along Clark Street, which would link the downtown core with the University by introducing a sequence of active street uses. Graduate student residences would be located on the upper floors of buildings located along Clark Street between Hinman and Orrington avenues. Ground-floor uses could include conventional commercial and retail establishments as well as artist and music studios, allowing pedestrians to view the activities within.

A new multi-purpose recreation facility is proposed for the northwest corner of Chicago Avenue and Clark Street. Undergraduate residences would be preserved in the area just south of Emerson, with new residences located in the southeast, in the area east of Chicago Avenue. New and existing residences would frame courtyards established on the southern end of the campus.

Lakefill/Open Space: While the members of this year’s freshman class are all likely to be grandparents before the plan is fully implemented, they will probably still be in school to see some of the plans take shape. The most dramatic of these – the construction of the Bienen School of Music – will likely affect both students and Evanston community members.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president for University affairs, told the RoundTable he “wasn’t sure” whether the Bienen Music School would block the bicycle and pedestrian path that curves east around Clark Street Beach and continues north to the campus. In an interview with the RoundTable, Mr. Cubbage said there is “not yet a detailed site plan [for the music school], so what effect that will have on the lakefill bike path is not known.” He emphasized that the path is “on [Northwestern’s] private property” but added, “We are well aware of the value of the path.”

The plan also calls for filling in four acres of the lagoon, or cooling pond, to create space for about six new buildings. These buildings will form a crescent along the western edge of the lagoon.

Farther east, the University owns about 82 acres of lake bottom. In the early 1960s, before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, Northwestern purchased about 150 acres of lake bottom from the state. Reclaiming about 70 acres, it built Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Norris University Center and several other buildings and created the cooling pond (the lagoon), whose water is recycled back into the lake. Mr. Cubbage said, “There’s always talk” about reclaiming and redeveloping those acres, “but there’s nothing definitive at this time.”

Space for Research

An “important driving factor” for the plan is the need for new space for research facilities, Prof. Webster told the RoundTable. The planning document says, “As sponsored research continues to grow, the demand for new and improved facilities will also grow, while the available open space on campus will continue to decline.”

Further, although the plan contemplates the addition of 5 million square feet of University space, almost none of that will be to accommodate additional students. “Everyone’s expectation is that the undergraduate population would remain where it is,” Mr. Webster told the RoundTable. Mr. Cubbage said the new residences on Clark Street would give students “better living conditions.”

Because most of the new space would go to research, Mr. Cubbage said expected growth in the student population would be graduate students, who would conduct research. The bulk of the research is “sponsored,” that is, funded by outside grants – mostly from the federal government – and the plan contemplates that the trend of sponsored research will continue.

The City and the University

For some of its proposed construction the plan addresses the need for zoning changes, which the City Council would have to approve. The plan “assumes that zoning changes would be required, with an understanding that the current relationship between the City and the University must be improved for these to occur.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...