Rendering of Northwestern University art, visitor center.Rendering by Goettsch Partners

City Council overruled the Preservation Commission’s decision to deny a Certificate of Appropriateness for the proposed Northwestern Visitors Center at its Oct. 22 meeting. The vote allows the project to go forward, despite objections to the appropriateness of the location and scale of the structure. The vote was 6-2.
During Citizen Comment, members of the Preservation Commission stood one after another to voice objections to the architectural context of the building given its proximity to historic Fisk Hall and its location right on the border of the Lakeshore Historic District. The Commission met at least three times to discuss the matter at length, and each time Northwestern returned with virtually the same set of plans, said several members.
The project went before the Preservation Commission because it sits on a Landmark Lot of Record. The lot, which includes much of the Northwestern campus, spans some 158 acres, said Ronald Nayler, Northwestern’s vice president for facilities management. As such, Mr. Nayler said, when considering architectural context the Preservation Commission should have considered all of the buildings on the lot.
The Commission disagreed, its members saying they felt they had to consider the immediate neighbors of the proposed building. Those neighbors included Fisk Hall, immediately to the west of the new building, and the homes in the historic district just across Sheridan Road.
Under City ordinances, if the Preservation Commission denies a certificate of appropriateness, the applicant may appeal the decision to full City Council. Council is allowed to consider the appeal “solely on the basis of the record and the appropriate standards,” said Ken Cox of the City’s law department. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of citizen comment, Council turned to Mr. Nayler for a PowerPoint presentation of Northwestern’s position.
It was clear from the outset that Council was going to support Northwestern and grant the appeal.
Paul Janske, a member of the Preservation Commission, asked Council to look closely at the minutes of their meetings. “We are volunteers who donate their time and have always been thoughtful,” he said. The vote at the Commission level, he reminded Council, was 7-0. That vote, he said, should carry weight with Council.
“Context is everything,” said Jack Weiss, another member of the Commission. The proposed Center will make “a massive visual statement,” he said. The building should be moved north, farther off Sheridan Road and into the space currently occupied by the two-story parking structure.
Gary Shoemaker, chair of the Commission, urged Council to look at the consistency in the minutes. The Commission met “quite a bit of resistance” from Northwestern, he said. Generally, the Commission works with applicants to bring buildings within standards. Northwestern would not budge, he said. “We have worked very closely with Northwestern [in the past],” he said, “and we would like to work with them again. But this project is not in the best interests of the City.”
Another sticking point with the Commission is that the proposal calls for clear-cutting trees along Sheridan Road to allow replacement of the existing bike and pedestrian path to the lakefront. The new path will be on City property and widened so as to serve as a fire lane. The City will lease the land to Northwestern for $1 a year, and in return Northwestern will maintain the path. Mr. Nayler said that it was important to the University to maintain a public access point to the lakefront that could be used by all citizens.
Possible impact on wildlife, and particularly birds, was another potential problem. Mr. Nayler said that in response to concerns raised by the Chicago Audubon Society the building would use special “bird-friendly” glass from a Wisconsin vendor and would landscape around the building with birds in mind. While the changes were not enough to gain the support of CAS, he said, he felt the University had addressed their concerns.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, supported the appeal, saying, “Context is subjective.” While he thanked the Commission for their work and said he did not think they were wrong, he concluded, “In my opinion the University has met what they need to meet.” The University has a right to build according to its own vision and not the City’s vision. “It’s a visitors’ center. It’s supposed to make a visual impact,” he said.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “We can’t look at everything.” The matter came to the City only because the building sat on a large landmark lot, she said. The concerns of bird advocates “have been addressed,” she added, then stated she would support the appeal.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, asked for more time to present the project to neighbors saying that there had been “an enormous amount of misinformation” in the City. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, agreed, asking for more time to present the issue.
Despite their requests, Council voted 6-2 to grant the appeal. The matter is now closed, and the project will move forward.