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Near the end of Michael Vasilko’s presentation of his plan for a performing arts/convention center complex on the lakefront off Church Street, Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne thanked him for his efforts. Her other comments, though, made it clear that she considered his vision more a nightmare than a dream. Some of her colleagues on the Economic Development Committee said they thought the idea merited additional discussion.

Mr. Vasilko presented to the members of the Economic Development Committee a revised and expanded version of the lakefront plan that he conceived and presented at budget meetings last year and earlier this year. The revised plan proposes the creation of a 3,000-foot island off Church Street for a performing arts venue, a convention center to accommodate 3,500 people, a hotel, underground parking, a marina and – reaching for the sky – an opera house, a symphony hall and the Obama Presidential Library. By developing this complex, Mr. Vasilko says, the City can create and sustain jobs and generate enough revenues from the activities there to fund the firefighters and police pension funds.

Mr. Vasilko said he hoped the City would allot some staff time to investigating the feasibility of his proposal.

Jobs, Economic Development, Evening Activities at the Lakefront

“We need as much economic development as we can get our hands on,” Mr. Vasilko said to the committee on July 28. “Evanston is a highly cultural city. We don’t have any facilities we can point to and say, ‘These are prominent fine-arts facilities,’” he said. “One thing that does produce a lot of money is a convention center,” he added, saying he envisioned a center to accommodate about 3,500 persons.

“Jobs are the issue,” Mr. Vasilko said. He said he thought the City could apply for federal stimulus money – from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. “You can repair only so many roads, and those would be temporary jobs,” he said, noting that some jobs for this complex would be permanent.

Mr. Vasilko said he had not met personally with representatives from the many state and federal departments that would have to approve such a development. He said, though, that he had spoken by telephone with representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers who “said it could be done.”

Passive Activities: Bring the Beach Toys and the Picnic Basket, Enjoy the Lakefront and Then Go Home

Ald. Wynne objected to such an active use of the lakefront. “Less than two years ago we [approved] a lakefront plan – one that was almost a year in the making and that was to last 20 to 30 years. The overwhelming decision was to keep the lakefront passive.”

She added, “The lakefront is our attraction. … I think most of Evanston would rebel [at this plan].”

She also said when a marina was proposed for a site off Sheridan Road at Calvary Cemetery, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would disrupt the littoral (sand) flow. “Marinas are polluting,” she said; “I would really object to any of our staff’s spending their time on this. … It’s what we’ve worked so hard not to have on our lakefront.” Noting the length of the proposed island – which would be connected to shore by a bridge – she said, “There are runways at Midway that are shorter than that.”

Reiterating that she felt the lakefront should be used for passive enjoyment she said, “People can pack their picnics and their beach toys and [at the end of the day] go home. [This plan] would have activities at night.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “It’s wrong that our lakefront is restricted to people who want to go to the beach and sleep all day.” She said her family moved to Evanston 50 years ago, “and Clark Street Beach looks just the same as it did then.” She said she liked the revenue-generating ideas and said they would “bring excitement and people with money to the community.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he felt the idea of developing the lakefront for more active enjoyment bore further discussion. Referring to the Lakefront Plan, he said, “It’s not a dogma; it’s a plan, and we will change plans in the future. Our reality is that we have a tremendous pension obligation. Expenses continue to mount; revenues continue to drop. The proposal is worth further study.”

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she appreciated that Mr. Vasilko had “gotten his arms around our budget situation” and added that it might take a while “for us to get our arms around [your proposal].” To him she said, “Thank you for bringing your best thinking and asking us to think about Evanston differently. There is value in thinking differently.”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she liked some of his ideas but would like to see them implemented in other parts of town – such as the continued pursuit of rehabbing the old Varsity Theatre into a performing arts center.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, at whose request Mr. Vasilko made the presentation to the committee, said, “I support what Alderman Jean-Baptiste says. We might be surprised about how our minds change. … The Sixth Ward people thought the loss of the marina was a mistake. I know the Sixth Ward is a long way from the lake, but it’s our lake, too.”

The August meeting of the Economic Development Committee has been cancelled. Further discussion of lakefront development is likely to be on the committee’s September agenda.