City Council recently rejected the Preservation Commission’s recommendation to preclude Northwestern University from building a seven-story visitors center adjacent to Clark Street Beach. The Council has yet to decide whether it will lease City-owned land to Northwestern at $1/year for an emergency-access lane.
The Council’s rejection of the Preservation Commission’s no-go recommendation has generated anger over several issues.
First, some people in town resent the University, seeing it as a taker, a gouger or an oppressor. They believe Northwestern has already taken a lot from Evanston with its tax-exempt status, and in its refusal to make an annual financial contribution in lieu of property taxes to the City. To them, the visitors’ center seems like another poke in the eye.
Others see the City Council as cozying up to Northwestern in a way that could result in a net loss to the City. NU has already purchased – and taken off the tax rolls – the 1800 Sherman Ave. building, which, until the purchase, had generated some of the highest tax revenues in the City. This is in addition to the large homes the University maintains, tax-free, for its administrators and to Ryan Field and a few other buildings it owns here.
Still others see it as more of a Council/citizen than a town/gown problem: The City asks for engagement and residents respond, volunteering their time on boards, committees and commissions. The Mayor appoints, and the City Council ratifies those appointments.
These appointees do not take their duties lightly: They spend time reading and studying so they can come prepared to meetings, which can be tedious, tendentious and, alas, repetitious.
They consider, deliberate and render their best recommendations. Because they are appointed – in some case for limited terms – most appear to be free of the political baggage that mars some Council decisions. Yet these boards and commissions are only advisory, and the Council is free to ignore or reject them. Council did just that when it decided to allow Northwestern to build its visitor center on its lakefront property near Clark Street Beach.
Many residents considered this quick decision and cavalier flouting of the Preservation Commission an affront to all who spend their time on boards and commissions essentially doing the City’s prep work.
Over the past 15 years there has been talk about binding review – giving the Plan Commission, for example – final, rather than advisory, say about the appearances and plans of new buildings. Council members, not wishing to give up their authority, have rejected that idea, which is of course their right.
At some point, though, the City Council, sitting as Council or as the Rules Committee of the City Council, should reconsider what it asks of its residents. We understand their reluctance to give up their authority as elected representatives to a mayor-appointed board or commission.
Yet the importance of the issues deliberated by many boards and commissions, the success many of them have had in improving things for our residents and the seriousness and commitment with which volunteers approach their duties must be balanced against the relative weight the resulting recommendations are given at Council meetings.
Council members should likely not deliberate this issue now, since local campaign season is almost underway, and we have heard that all Council members are seeking re-election.
Maybe the Mayor should appoint a citizen committee to look into it.